Tuesday, July 08, 2008

WaMu: No good VERY BAD fees

I may need a new bank. Again. GRR RAR GRUMP BOO HISS.

Back last year, when I was auditioning banks, I mentioned that my #1 absolute hard-and-fast requirement was no fees, especially for using third-party ATMs.

This is something I get irrationally cranky about. I think it's downright usurious for banks to charge their own customers back-end fees for using outside ATMs. (I'm OK with ATM operators charging front-end fees for using their machines, though I wish they were legally capped at something sensible. $1, maybe $1.50, fine. $3 and up? Sod off, Chase.) I scratched off my list every bank that charged such fees. I ended up with WaMu.

And for several months, all was fine ... until, in late April, what did I spy? A random $2 charge on my statement for "ATM BALANCE INQUIRY FEE - DOMESTIC."

Er um? This is WaMu, the company of "Start free and stay free," the company that advertises "free checks for life, free wire transfers, free ATMs, free online banking, free check safekeeping, no monthly fees." What is this balance inquiry fee nonsense?

Off went my cranky email to customer service. Back came their formulaic cut-and-pasted reply:

The fee for a balance inquiry at a non-Washington Mutual ATM is $2 per inquiry. Your previous statement period was March 11, 2008, to April 11, 2008. This $2 fee indicates one balance inquiry performed at a non-Washington Mutual ATM during that period.

ATM balance inquiry fees are charged for balance inquiries that are made at non-Washington Mutual ATMs. The fees collect during the statement period and will post as a single transaction at the end of the statement cycle. As a result, the balance inquiry fee may not post for up to a month after the balance inquiry was made. ...

In some cases, the ATM itself may initiate a balance inquiry to verify the balance in your account. In most cases, the ATM wont [sic] inform you of the balance inquiry. Because the balance inquiry doesnt generate a fee that is included in the withdrawal amount, the owner of the ATM isnt required to inform you of the balance inquiry.

(Yes, all lack of apostrophes are reproduced verbatim.)

The letter went on repetitively in this vein for several paragraphs, but the gist of it boils down to: We charge you $2 for balance inquiries (not withdrawls! withdrawls are free, because we are WaMu and market that to high heaven!) at non-WaMu ATMs. Even if you do not actually hit the buttons to inquiry after your balance, we may charge this fee anyway if the ATM decides to automatically ask what your balance is before giving you money. Because these are batch-processed and may not post till the end of the month, you have no real way of backtracking what ATM this came from and whether or not it's legit. Byebye!

At which point, of course, my blood pressure went off like Mount Vesuvius. I think I spent a full hour or two railing at David about this, who waited it out and then pointed out that I have to be one of the only "consumer advocate" types out there who can happily drop $22 for a single piece of sushi (er, we went to Bar Masa ...) and yet spend hours obsessing about a $2 fee. Which, ok, yes, point. But still.

I never, ever, ever inquire after balances at any ATM (my obsessive PocketMoney tracking means I always know to the penny what should be in my checking account), but I've been hit with this %^@$@$ $2 fee twice more. I'm toying with just how irate it makes me. On the one hand, even I realise that $6 is not worth the hell of going through changing banks. On the other hand, I deeply dislike the deceptiveness of the charge, and the general level of fee-grubbing sneakiness it indicates.

If this were my one and only problem with WaMu, I'd probably grit my teeth, write nasty blog posts, and stick it out. But I'm now on my third unrelated incident - in 10 months - that has me grumbling about my bank. Three times now (this weekend was the third) I've had debit charges come through improperly. Twice, a merchant charge ran through my account twice ($28 or so the first time, $50.50 this week); once, an ATM charged me $7 for a withdraw fee posted as a $2. David, who withdrew the same amount minutes later at the same exact ATM from his Citibank account, was charged $2.

Every time, I've clicked the "dispute charge" icon helpfully listed next to every item in my online account balance register. Every time, I've received a very clearly cut-and-pasted form letter which has been utterly unhelpful, blaming the merchant and saying to call WaMu if I need further assistance. Every time, calling has led me down a Kafkaesque chain of transfers which has ultimately resulted in me being told I need to take this up with the merchant, not WaMu.

I'm now trying to sort the latest charge, for $50.50, out with the merchant, who is being vastly more responsive and helpful than WaMu. It's entirely possible that the merchant, who I know and like and I also know has some kludgy low-tech systems in place, accidentally ran the charge twice. But in almost 10 years with NetBank and at least as long with Amex and various other credit-card companies, I've never had a double billing post to any other account. I am cursed with fraudulent charges, blessed without accidental ones. I have to assume there were some basic algorithms in place to catch likely double-billing attempts. (The same amount, from the same merchant, posted hours apart? Could it possibly be an error?) Systems WaMu lacks.

So. Much as I don't want to move accounts yet again, I'm eying WaMu very carefully and awaiting further annoyance.

Anyone out there have a bank that doesn't charge outside ATM fees (my admittedly irrational deepest financial loathing) that they actually like?