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Consumers sour on ATM surcharges

The extra cost leads to the first decline in a decade in ATM transactions, while debit card sales jump 35 percent.

James Synder used to routinely step up to whatever automated teller machine was around to get cash, but that was before he saw monthly surcharges exceeding $20.

Now the Chicago resident, like millions of Americans, is doing everything possible to avoid paying for the convenience of getting his own money.

"The service charge thing gets annoying," said Synder, who now uses only his bank's machines to get cash. "You can wrack up extra charges fast."

Synder is one of a growing number of consumers who are turning their backs on surcharges, according to a survey by a Chicago-based trade magazine.

Bank Network News found that monthly ATM transactions in March 1999 fell to 907.4-million, down 2.4 percent from the 930-million transactions recorded in June 1998. It was the first volume decline in 10 years, the report found.

At the same time, debit card point-of-sale transactions jumped 35 percent, according to the survey of the top 10 ATM networks, including Cash Station, Star and Interlink. Debit cards, which often look like credit cards, work with a bank account, making a deduction for every purchase.

"Cash station surcharges have become a double-edged sword for ATM networks," David Gosnell, senior editor for the magazine, said Tuesday. "There's a general consensus that surcharges have dampened ATM use and shifted consumer thinking toward using debit cards, but the industry has been slow to respond because of the profits attained from them."

Many banks routinely impose ATM charges when a non-customer steps up to the keypad. The banks argue these fees are necessary because banks must pay each other to reconcile accounts. They also must pay thousands of dollars on annual upkeep of the machines. Some banks also charge their own customers when they use another bank's machine, resulting in double charges.

Overall, about 66 percent of the nation's 227,000 ATMs in 1998 had surcharges averaging $1.22 each time a non-customer used them, up from 56 percent a year earlier, according to Speer & Associates, an Atlanta consulting firm to the banking industry. Fees can rocket to $5 in such places as bars and rural areas.

State and federal lawmakers have attempted to limit the charges but have had little success. Now it appears customers are taking matters into their own hands.

"Only in a real pinch do I pay a $1 service fee," said business consultant Tom Nolan of Mokena, Ill., who uses ATMs only at his banks. "I don't like giving away money."

Retailers, led by supermarkets and grocers, have taken advantage of that dissatisfaction by offering consumers the opportunity to use debit cards _ not only to make purchases but to get cash back, Speer said.

Alan Metcalfe, a Philadelphia architect, says he uses that option more by stopping into supermarkets or drug stores.

"It's interesting, though, how back in 1979, the banks presented ATM service free of charge," Metcalfe said. "We were ignorant consumers not to think they wouldn't start replacing tellers and charging us for this."

"I worked my whole life and (made) my own money _ I can't get it out of the bank without paying," said a frustrated Grace Carter, a 72-year-old retired Philadelphia Board of Education member.

As ATM use has leveled off because of the fees, so have the profits from ATM networks, according to Bank One Corp., the nation's fifth-largest bank.

The fees also have shifted traditional American thinking away from paying for items first with cash, then by check, credit cards and debit cards, the bank said.

Bank One, based in Chicago, hedges its bets by being the largest issuer of debit cards and owning the second-largest ATM network nationwide.