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Checking easier, but penalties rise

Banks are making it easier for customers to avoid fees on their checking accounts, but they're coming down harder on those who bounce checks.

And, according to a new industry study, some are preparing to raise fees for using the increasingly popular automated teller machines.

The study, by the Bank Rate Monitor, found banks are lowering the minimum balance that customers need in order to qualify for no-fee checking. The average minimum balance for avoiding checking fees dropped by 60 percent to $346 between March and September, according to the survey of 250 banks and thrifts.

But while their bank account can be thinner, customers have to be vigilant to avoid penalties, and the consequences of a slip-up are more severe.

Banks raised the average tab for bouncing a check to $20.79 from $20.54. It can go as high as $28.45 in Philadelphia, the study found. The cheapest place to pass a rubber check? San Francisco and Los Angeles, with averages of $12.11 and $12.44, respectively.

Banks are taking a leaf from the credit card industry.

Although credit card companies have eliminated most annual fees, they charge big penalties when customers are late on payments or go over the limit on their accounts. Some are even charging those who pay their credit card bills off in full each month.

Automated teller machines are another battleground for fees.

About 48 percent of surveyed banks impose charges on non-customers who use their ATM machines. But "some institutions said they were waiting for public furor over the fees to die down before deciding to implement surcharging," according to the study.

Ed Mierzwinski, a researcher with the United States Public Interest Research Group in Washington, was skeptical that consumers are actually better off with the fee shuffling.

Banks "may be lowering balances to avoid fees," he said, "but they have also created new fees in addition to the monthly maintenance fees, so fees have gone up much more than you think they have."

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