Thursday, May 31, 2007

DAMMIT, NetBank got sold!

I'm finding this out quite late -- if they e-mailed anything to customers, I didn't see it, and since I don't read newspapers in Georgia (where NetBank is based), I didn't notice it in the news. But when I logged on today to check my paycheck deposit, I noticed a tiny note on's front page: "Great News! NetBank announces an agreement with EverBank. Learn more."

Nothing your bank considers "Great News!" is ever actually "Great News!" The "agreement" is "we've sold out, meet your new overlords!"

@%^@!$. I've been through this before. It sucks.

In 1996, I moved to New York for college and opened up an account with the Columbia University credit union. This was my first very-own bank account beyond the local one my parents opened for me in our hometown. In high school, I never had enough money to pay much attention to the details of my checking account; I basically dragged my paychecks over to the bank, cashed them, and rationed my cash. My Columbia account was the first I'd actually be using on a regular basis.

About two months in, I realised the university credit union wasn't going to work out for me. The union had very limited and sporadic hours. If I wanted details on what was happening in my account, I needed to find time to go over during their brief periods of availability and queue up for a printout. I suppose most people with more regular finances could have just eyed the mailed monthly statements, but I had a ) lots of deposits from casual jobs coming in, and b) a spend-it-down-to-the-last-nickel fiscal strategy, which could easily go awry if anything I didn't write down went into or out of my account. I was a broke student. Knowing exactly what was happening in my account, in real-time, was important.

So I began shopping for a new bank, one with online account access, a feature the credit union lacked. And I found Security First Network Bank, an Internet-banking pioneer.

SFNB had an office and actual branch location in Atlanta, but its primary existence was virtual. It had the features I was after: the online access (of course), and most importantly, checking accounts with no fees and no minimum-balance requirements. I signed up and transferred over my life savings (about $80, I think).

People I mentioned this to at the time seemed to find it dubious. "An Internet bank?" I was asked a lot. "Is that safe?" My take: It's FDIC-backed. I don't see why it's any less safe than any other bank.

And indeed, SFNB offered me a great banking experience. This was the first time I became an actual cheerleader for a financial-services provider. I loved my online access. I loved not being charged fees by my bank for using any ATM I wanted. I loved my free checking. And, after one particular incident, I really loved customer service.

I'd been with SFNB about two years -- sometime in my junior year of college -- when they sent out a notice about a change in their banking terms. Checking accounts would now no longer be wholly free for "casual" users: to keep free checking and avoid a monthly fee, you needed to either maintain a minimum daily average or have a paycheck direct deposit set up.

Hell. I was a student; I didn't have the money to meet minimums or a regular job offering direct deposit. My work-study and internship gigs all paid with checks. But I really didn't want to go hunting for a new bank again. So, I emailed SFNB customer service, politely complaining that they should offer a student account option with exceptions. 'Right now, I'm broke and don't have a job with direct-deposit options,' I argued. 'But in a few years, I'll graduate and be far less broke. Why not earn loyalty now by offering accounts with friendly terms for students, who will later grow up into nice lucrative customers for you?'

It worked. I got a personal email back (sadly, it's since been lost to the mists of time and email crashes) from a bank executive who said this was a good idea and they'd implement it right away. And they did! My account stayed free, and when I started working full-time, my direct-deposits went straight to my beloved SFNB account.

And then, in 2001 or so, I got a "Great News!" letter in the mail. SFNB was being sold off to Centura Bank. Then I got a big letter with Centura's banking terms. They were awful. Minimum balance requirements, heavy fees, and, stupidest of all, high fees for using non-Centura ATMs. Why stupid? Centura was a Southern bank, based somewhere in the Carolinas. It had no ATMs or branches anywhere within three states of me. What in the hell was I supposed to do, hop a plane to Raleigh every time I wanted to withdraw money? (I see I'm not the only customer who was pissed off about this. I just googled and came across an epinions rant.)

Centura pretty clearly had no interest in hanging onto SFNB customers outside its geographic zone, so I sadly went looking for a new bank. I went into branches of all the major NYC banks -- at the time, Banco Popular, Chase and Citibank -- to gather literature.

All the literature was depressing. I couldn't find a single local bank willing to offer me no-minimum-balance, no-fee checking.

So I once again turned to the Internet, and found NetBank. It met all my requirements: No minimums. Good online access tools. No fees for using third-party ATMs. I signed on.

And for six years, I've been a pretty happy customer. NetBank has lots of consumer-friendly frills, like no-fee overdraft protection. If I overdraft (which I've done once or twice by accident and several times when fraud wiped my account), I don't pay any bounce fees at all; I just pay interest on the loaned overdraft funds. (This has never added up to more than 50 cents). They've also been fairly good about dealing with my two cases of ATM hacking fraud; they refunded my money both times without any grousing about how if someone was using my PIN to withdraw cash I must have given them the number, which I've heard of other people getting grilled on by their bank.

So finding out that NetBank has been sold has me deeply, deeply cranky.

As with last time, it seems the acquiring bank has zero interest in replicating the terms that made their acquired bank so attractive to its customers. EverBank's big hook appears to be high interest rates -- but I don't care about interest on my checking account. I never keep money in there for long. I just care about free checking. And EverBank's "FreeNet" accounts? Not so much with the actually free thing. If you don't maintain a $1,500 average balance, Online Bill Pay costs $4.95 a month. There may be other fees; the website is very unclear. An "account fee schedule" section refers to a $7.95 monthly fee for accounts with an average balance below $800.

I admit I'm slightly irrational on this point. I *loathe* monthly-maintenance banking fees. $4.95 is not much. I'd spend it without thinking too hard for a snack or a magazine. I already spend more than that to bank each month, since I pay upfront ATM charges for using third-party ATMs (the fees charged by the ATMs' owners -- NetBank has no fees). But those surcharges feel slightly optional -- I'm the one choosing not to hunt down lower-fee ATMs. The idea of money being automatically sucked out of my account just because I'm not meeting balance minimums enrages me. And the principle of the thing matters enough to me to justify the pain of changing banks. (New checks, rerouting my direct deposits, changing all my stored account settings, no access to cash while the changes percolate .... arugh. I am pained just thinking about it.)

So. Hell. I need a new bank. Um, anyone like theirs? My absolute core requirements are "no minimum balance requirements to avoid monthly fees, good online account access, free online bill pay." I'd also strongly prefer a bank that doesn't charge for use of outside ATMs, and one that offers overdraft protection with no bounce fees. Beyond that, I'm flexible. And I really don't care in the slightest about interest rates. Zero percent is fine by me so long as my checking is free.