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Can't balance your account? Banks may charge for help

You know all those nickel-and-dime bank charges that have had you climbing the wall during the past few years? Add another fee to the list. Charging for time. That's right, time.

It's similar to the way attorneys and accountants bill you by the hour for their services. And after reading this, you probably will want to do a better job of balancing your checkbook.

Increasingly, institutions are starting the meter on customers who run to the bank to reconcile their monthly statements, or who ask for "special research."

A bank's time can cost you from $10 to $35 per hour, depending on the kind of assistance you request.

In Detroit, for example, NBD Bank just began charging folks who can't figure out their monthly statement. The fee: A minimum of $12.50 and a maximum of $25.

"It's for accounts that generally have not been well-maintained and require extraordinary service in balancing," explained Hillyer Dunlop, NBD's manager of product development.

Some banks bill by the quarter-hour, half-hour or hour. Some have a one-hour minimum. A few don't charge anything if they help with a "current" statement or if you keep megabucks on deposit at their institution. That's what you call a "special relationship" with your banker.

Union Bank, San Francisco, has more patience than most. It imposes a $20-per-hour tariff "only after several months of free help," said a spokesman.

Most common, however, is 10 bucks per hour charged by a slew of institutions surveyed by Bank Rate Monitor. The top fee of $35 an hour was assessed by Northern Trust, Chicago, and Home Savings Bank, Norfolk, Va.

Besides the hourly rates, most outfits will nick you $1 to $5 if you ask for a duplicate statement or a copy of a check you wrote. If the check is more than 12 months old, Sunbelt Federal Savings, Dallas, charges $4 instead of $2.

Are all the charges legit? Yes, if you listen to the banks' side of the story: "We want to have a fee available, so customers don't abuse the bank's services," said Andrew Clem, a savings officer at Dollar Bank, Pittsburgh. "We try to provide as much information as we can, but we also want to protect ourselves, so we don't end up balancing a customer's account every month."

Biggest abusers? "People who ask for duplicate statements on a consistent basis and who are asking you to basically balance their checkbooks," Clem said. "Normally, it's just time, figuring out the customer's transactions. We try to reconcile with what they think happened with the account."

The ABCs of balancing your statement are:

a) Get together all your deposit receipts and all canceled checks that come with the statement. If your account is truncated (no checks returned), you will have to look at either your check register or your check carbons.

b) Add up the deposits and subtract all the checks. Then figure in any charges, including monthly maintenance fees and per-check fees.

c) The final result should be the difference between your balance at the beginning of the checking cycle and the end of the cycle.

Clem adds these pointers:

"Remember to list your ATM activity and periodic debits and credits. Customers have a hard time balancing because they fail to write down recurring transactions.

"Balance your account as soon as you receive your statement. Don't stick it in a drawer and collect six months' worth, then try to balance it all at once. If you do it quickly, you'll usually remember what happens."

Terry McCaffrey, marketing manager for Northern Trust, said many people fail to keep paid bills and deposit receipts with their canceled checks long enough. "That's the real reason why extensive research is required. . . . It's when we have to go back to the archives to find something very old, or have to spend hours and hours, that we pass the cost on.

"Most often it has less to do with bank problems, but more with reconstructing records such as for the IRS or litigation. Then we're digging up individual transactions," McCaffrey said.

Latest rate trend: All CD yields fell three-hundredths of a percentage point in the week, as Bank Rate Monitor's ratio of decreases to increases eased slightly to 10-to-1 from 13-to-1. Mortgage and loan rates barely changed.

Robert K. Heady publishes Bank Rate Monitor, 100 Highest Yields and other financial newsletters from his office in North Palm Beach.

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