Shanika Henley uses a debit card for a purchase at Staples on Slappey Boulevard Thursday afternoon.
ALBANY, Ga. — It’s convenient and easy — just swipe the little card — or recite the numbers over the phone. In a few short years, a nation of check-writers has become a plastic society.
Sure, there were always credit cards, but today most pay for nearly everything with their debit pipelines — plastic bridges from bank to merchant. One of the most attractive features of the arrangement is that it’s always been free.
The party may be ending.
Some of the nation’s largest banks are either charging fees for debit and credit card use or thinking about it.
According to the Atlanta Business News, Sun Trust Banks, the city’s largest, has launched new account offerings, including Everyday Checking that charges customers $5 per month for debit card use.
Regions Bank is charging $4 each month for many of their new accounts, including accounts in Albany.
The charges come, bankers say, because of a recent federal law designed to protect merchants who accept debit and credit cards from consumers. Smaller “community” banks — those with assets of less than $10 billion — may be excepted, and most are holding back on fees for now.
According to Luke Flatt, president and CEO of AB&T in Albany, a community bank, the law was passed in the wake of the recent drive for national banking reform and limits the “interchange” or swipe fee banks can charge retailers when they accept credit or debit cards from customers.
“The interchange fee is less than one half what it was last year,” Flatt said, “and the big banks are trying to recoup their losses by charging fees for consumer card use.”
AB&T is not planning to implement any new fees, Flatt said, but he added that the “banking industry is changing” and that every bank is having to look at charges as they are “appropriate.”
It’s uncertain whether banks below the federal asset limit can long escape the charging of new fees.
Flat says that although community banks are exempt, the exemption is “very complex” and the interchange network hasn’t yet figured out how to implement it.
This wait-and-see attitude seems consistent among community banks responding to a Herald survey, including Flint Community Bank, HeritageBank of the South, Bank of Lee County and Peoples South Bank. So far, at least, smaller banks have no stated plans to implement new fees.
Mary Beth Hobby, vice president of marketing at HeritageBank of the South, said the company has been considering the situation for “more than a year,” but isn’t ready yet to pass on any costs to their customers.
“This legislation could force us all back to the dark ages of check-writing,” Hobby said. “It will take bank customers talking to their representatives in order to make real change.”
Jimmy Cooper, city president of Bank of Lee County, says his bank is considering new fees, although not right away.
“It’s come almost to the point we’re going to have to do something,” Cooper said, “with the government continuing to impose regulations to keep banks from imposing fees. Otherwise, we’ll have to do something to remain porofitable. Every bank will have to. It’s getting much more difficult. It’s changing as we go.”
Credit unions — such as DOCO Regional Federal Credit Union, Albany Federal Employees Credit Union and Artesian City Federal Credit Union — fall under the same federal restrictions as banks but, according to Keith Southwell, marketing director of Albany Federal Employees Credit Union, local credit unions are likely to be exempt because of their smaller asset size. Albany Federal has no immediate plans to increase their fees, Southwell said.