Taking Stock ..

The bank can do as it pleases

By Malcolm Berko

Dear Mr. Berko:

Several years ago, I got a $60,000 line of credit from Fifth Third Bank.

I filled out the paperwork, gave the bank the documentation it needed and signed the forms. When I asked what the cost would be, a woman at the bank said, “Just interest when you use the money.”

Fortunately, I never used this account (it’s called a flex account), but the bank officer suggested I keep the account open, so I did.

Early this year, I got a bill from Fifth Third for $65.

The branch and the manager said this is an annual charge that I must pay, and if I were to close the account, Fifth Third would charge me a $500 closing fee plus the $65.

I was really angry.

How can this bank suddenly decide to charge me $565? No one there told me about this when I opened the account, though it was hidden in the contract’s fine print.

If someone had told me, I wouldn’t have opened this account. Please advise me about whether I should pay this.

Also, a teller recently advised me to get the bank’s app on my phone. She said that Fifth Third may charge “teller fees” if customers use a teller to make deposits rather than the ATM. Can the bank do this, too?

CF, Largo, Fla.

Dear CF:

Of course it can.

And it can also charge you a dime for every check you write, unilaterally raise interest costs on your home-equity loan, increase your bounced check charge to $45, bump your credit card fees, wait 10 days to clear a check from the bank across the street and then charge you to make a deposit.

You need to count your fingers when leaving that bank.

Fifth Third Bancorp (FITB-$19.72) can do anything it wants; however, you don’t have to bank there.

Like the airlines, FITB’s management has been doing lots of nasty things in the past two years to raise revenues.

Take 15 minutes and Google “Fifth Third customer complaints;” you’ll be gabberflasted at the chorus of anger.

Comments about FITB’s harassing delinquent customers at 5 a.m., secretly blocking customer account balances so checks bounce, penalties for customers prepaying loans, improper overdraft fees, reneging on preapproved home loans and onerous charges when customers make car loan payments over the phone.

Then there are complaints about customers being called at work, of rude employees on the phone, of poor service at the branches and about employees whose English is hard to understand.

It’s no wonder that more than 50 class action suits have been filed.

This is not a nice bank for America’s middle class to conduct business with, and this “not nice” persona begins at the top.

FITB used to be consumer-friendly; that is, until urbane Kevin “Whitey” Kabat, whose white mane is slicked back like cake frosting, became CEO in 2007.

That year, poor Whitey began to have laundry problems, and FITB tumbled from $43 to $1 by mid-2009.

Whitey and his executive-suite lads went bonkers stemming real estate losses, closing branches, trashing bad loans from the books, begging bucks from the Federal Reserve, manipulating the balance sheet, reducing personnel and raising billions in new capital.

Some believe that FITB’s near-death experience between 2007 and 2009 caused a corporate DNA deficit, the consequences of which now manifest themselves in numerous customer complaints and class action suits.

There’s a palpable, nervous tension in Whitey’s executive offices, and visitors can feel it.

FITB’s share price may have peaked.

Future earnings growth appears below average.

A return to the sweet net profit margins of the past is unlikely. And flagging employee morale badly needs a boost.

Those may be the reasons that many brokerages have neutral ratings on FITB’s shares.

Because FITB needs new revenue sources, Whitey figures he can sock it to the middle-class consumer, who is powerless to complain.

This bank is worse than the phone company.

I believe that FITB can enforce those very cleverly hidden fees, even though they smack of hooliganism.

But discuss this with an attorney, who may suggest that these charges lend themselves to a class action suit. Wouldn’t it be nice to turn the tables?


Please address your financial questions to Malcolm Berko, P.O. Box 8303, Largo, FL 33775 or e-mail him at mjberko@yahoo.com. Visit Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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