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Bank hopes to snare clients on free ATMs

Eaten alive by rising automatic teller machine fees? There's new hope for ATM junkies.

Savings of America this month unveiled a new checking account that gives customers free, unlimited use of any bank's ATMs nationwide.

The ATM Value Checking account is Savings of America's answer to the game of escalating ATM fees at big banks. Barnett, First Union and NationsBank are blanketing Florida with ATMs while also charging fees to customers of other institutions (in most cases, an extra $1 per transaction).

For consumers hooked on the convenience of 24-hour teller machines, Savings of America's account is an innovation in an industry often lean on imagination. But it isn't for everyone:

+ The free account carries no minimum balance but does require direct deposit of customer paychecks. Otherwise, it costs $5 a month _ still cheap these days for checking and free ATM use.

+ The customer also must use ATMs for all basic transactions like deposits, withdrawals and transfers.

Otherwise, Savings of America charges the customer $1 for using a teller for a transaction that could have been handled at the ATM.

This year, banks got the regulatory go-ahead to start adding surcharges to ATM users who were not their customers. That's a charge on top of the current fee.

At Barnett, non-customers account for 35 percent of the transactions at its ATMs. That's a lot of extra fees.

In reaction, several members of Congress introduced legislation to ban or at least require disclosure of the new fees for ATM users. But those bills already are bogged down, thanks to heavy lobbying by banks.

Savings of America, part of Home Savings of America in Irwindale, Calif., has six branches in Pinellas, Pasco and Manatee counties.

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