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These Dumb Laws Will Cost You

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After everything that banks have taken from the government and taxpayers, it may seem like it's time for the American people to demand something back. But although Congress seems to be taking the opportunity to cash in on anti-bank voter sentiment, the measures that lawmakers are supporting focus attention in the wrong areas.

Bank fees and you
Lately, everyone has been paying attention to the fees that banks charge. Such fees are the bread and butter of profitable banking institutions. Interest-linked income rises and falls with the credit markets, and delinquencies and write-offs offset the revenue from making loans. But fee income keeps coming in regardless of what's happening with interest rates and the overall economy.

Still, in talking about bank fees, the sheer amount of money involved may shock you. Bank of America (NYSE: BAC  ) reported $11 billion in fees on deposit accounts last year, while Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC  ) clocked in with $5.7 billion. Citigroup (NYSE: C  ) brought in over $1 billion in checking-related fees alone during 2009.

In large part, the government's answer has been to try to regulate these fees out of existence. Overdraft fees have long been a subject of congressional attention, and the Federal Reserve expects to release new credit regulations by the end of 2010 to address the problem. Most recently, the Senate is now seeking to limit fees for using ATMs to $0.50. That's less than a fifth of the average $2.66 that banks charge for ATM fees.

At first glance, taking legal steps to limit out-of-control bank fees might seem to make sense. After all, is it really fair for someone to have to pay a $39 overdraft fee for writing a $10 check that their account balance can't cover? Should anyone have to pay $5 to get money out of an ATM?

My answer is a resounding yes. Here's why.

Unforeseen consequences
What lawmakers seem not to understand is that big banks will find ways to make money no matter how much regulation they have to endure. Trying to limit bank fees is like trying to plug a leaky dam; put your thumb in one hole, and another one pops up somewhere else.

All told, the situation right now is pretty good for people who are responsible with their money. If you want to avoid bank fees, you can. Here's all you have to do:

  • Don't want to overdraw your checking account? Keep some extra money in your account, or keep your checkbook balanced every day so you always know where you stand.
  • Don't want to pay an ATM fee? Use your own bank's ATMs, which are almost always fee-free. Or use one of many banks that pay rebates for ATM fees incurred at other institutions.

From one perspective, high bank fees actually encourage people to act responsibly. In contrast, government regulation that limits fees lets people get away with being sloppy with their finances. That doesn't really benefit anybody.

Even worse, when banks can't charge easily avoidable fees like this, they look for other ways of snaring people. Already, credit card companies hit by reform legislation have taken steps to recover lost revenue. American Express (NYSE: AXP  ) has added new fees and penalties to some of its rewards cards, while Fifth Third (Nasdaq: FITB  ) is charging a $19 fee to cardholders who don't make any charges in a given year. Both American Express and JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM  ) have recently added new cards that charge annual fees simply to be a cardholder.

Let everyone else pay
From a selfish perspective, you should realize that easily avoidable fees like overdraft and ATM charges actually benefit you. Given that the alternative may well be the end of free checking and savings accounts, I'd just as soon have Congress tone down the anti-bank rhetoric and focus its attention on the more important aspects of regulating the financial industry.

Banks can be moneymakers in your portfolio. Morgan Housel explores when bank shareholders can expect to get dividends again.

Fool contributor Dan Caplinger goes to ridiculous lengths to avoid bank fees. He doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned in this article. American Express is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Fool's disclosure policy has its priorities straight.

Read/Post Comments (23) | Recommend This Article (22)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On May 11, 2010, at 11:58 AM, caltex1nomad wrote:

    I can't believe in this day and age with all of the personal computing devices that people still get overdrawn at the bank. I have overdraft protection with ING Direct and it doesn't cost me anything unless I overdraw on my account and even then they just charge me a small interest rate on the overdraft. When I need cash, I get it at the grocery store check-out line where I don't get charged a fee. We do have options to avoid these fees but, the American public is too lazy ! They want everything handed to them free and easy.

  • Report this Comment On May 11, 2010, at 12:16 PM, Usurped wrote:

    This is the societal policy of equal outcome. The TaxPayers have to work for the TaxEaters, so why shouldn't responsible users of credit and banking have to pay for lazy, ignorant probable TaxEaters who use the banking system?

  • Report this Comment On May 11, 2010, at 12:58 PM, DrRoberts1 wrote:

    Perhaps nobody has yet informed the contributors to this site that the Government, i.e. the taxpayers, made money on the TARP injections to the major banks regardless of whether said major bank wanted assistance from the Government or not. Urban legends seem to die hard!

  • Report this Comment On May 11, 2010, at 3:40 PM, upinsmoke81 wrote:

    By the same line of argument you could also avoid the 19.00 fee from Fifth Third buy buying a pack of gum you might as well have bought anyhow. An annual fee from Amex and JP could be avoided by using another company that wouldn't charge an annual fee. Of the millions of offers I'm swamped with in the mail for cards odds are I'll find one. I'll let you know when I get home.

    The reason these aren't dumb laws is because there can be a pretty reasonable boundary laid between providing a service at cost + 0X% to keep a baseline revenue and the current scalping of 5xcost.

    The only reason the government got into regulating overdraft and atm fees was because they went from convenience services to loansharking. What you fail to realize is when the service is reasonably priced it is more often utilized. I know if I was paying .50 cents on a withdrawal from an atm versus 3.00 I might change my mind in front of the atm of another ban rather than hoof it the extra mile to my bank.

  • Report this Comment On May 11, 2010, at 3:44 PM, rhutmacher wrote:

    I work at a small credit union, and I for one think these bank fees are very reasonable. I almost never see our responsible members pay fees of any sort. The only ones that pay fees are those that cannot keep track of their money. These fees are in place as much to make money as they are incentives for people to be responsible with their own finances. Stop making us pay for the irresponsibility of others!

  • Report this Comment On May 11, 2010, at 3:58 PM, kerammf wrote:

    Unfortunately bangsters have politicians on their

    payroll. No matter what you try to do they will find the way to screw you. If you have unlimited amount of time to learn their game you may be lucky. But keep in mind that's all they do. Just trying to separate you from your money. Period. They are trained to do it they are "educated" to steal/extort. What kind of banking it is if they offer you .25% money market and want 25% for credit card. That's called THEFT, RAPE, in day light. We reached point where it's better to keep money at home than in bank. Even under this scenario they will still try to screw you. And politicians are there to help them.

  • Report this Comment On May 11, 2010, at 5:02 PM, iversonj88 wrote:

    This article is dead on. There are no problem with fees, and people need an incentive to keep their acts together. I work for a financial institution as well, and there is no reason someone shouldn't have overdraft protection like the one mentioned above, instead of bellyaching about fees. As far as ATM fees go, many ATM's are privately owned, and when you consider the cost of operating one, those fees are needed by entrepenuers who have made that investment. upinsmoke81 makes a good point about more utilization, but personally, I haven't paid my bank any kind of fees ever. kerammf is just being paranoid and sounds like he is worried about being rich instead of being wealthy. this article is a good warning about what will happen with misguided populist regulation- banks will always pass operating costs to the consumer.

  • Report this Comment On May 11, 2010, at 5:43 PM, MissouriBob wrote:

    I'm all for the fees that actually protect the bank from the "Real Fools" out there. However, I recently got hit with a fee because I had too many withdrawels from my savings (not too much money, too many transactions). Seems the goverments attempt to have me put more money in my bank's simple savings account is to fine me for moving my own money around!

  • Report this Comment On May 11, 2010, at 5:49 PM, FinnMcCoolIRA wrote:

    This entire problem has NEVER been one of economics .... it IS political. The left wing politicians have merely set up a 'straw man' to batter down in order to portray themselves as 'saviours' of the common man [a.k.a. - freeloaders] hoping to buy votes from the ignorant masses.

    I worked 35 years for one of the largest credit card isuers and learned early on that only the foolish ever paid the 'extra fees'. This knowledge - and self discipline - worked: I've NEVER paid a bounced check fee, finance charges, overdraft charge, ATMs, etc.

    In fact I MAKE about $400+ a year, plus float, on no annual fee 'Reward' cards,etc. and in the past actually make hundreds on 'rebates' for balance transfers!

    People have to:

    1.) Learn the Creditors rules;

    2.) Use the rules to ones advantage;

    3.) Stop doing stupid things;

    4.) Stop whining!

    All the political 'populism' is merely going to result in the diminution of available credit for MARGINAL debtors.

  • Report this Comment On May 11, 2010, at 6:15 PM, kerammf wrote:

    Seems like most posts are glorifying fees. Not hard to figure out associations. Fees for what? For using our own money? Yes their creativity is limitless and if not stopped they will bankrupt us and the country again.

    Leave your $500 unattended for a few months, and before you know you will own them another $500

    in fee and penalties for doing nothing. That's not banking, that's extortion. Just reminder for all cheerleaders.

    Tax Payer had to bail them out because

    banksters blew our money.

  • Report this Comment On May 11, 2010, at 7:51 PM, FinnMcCoolIRA wrote:

    @ kerammf

    Who's glorifying 'fees'? The point is that the fees that are levied are paid by people who put themselves into a position to pay them.

    Most smart consumers DO NOT pay ANY fees because they are 'wiser'.

    "For using our own money?", nonsense. If the person had the money in the account when it was accessed there would be no fee!

    "Leave your $500 unattended for a few months..., exactly the point, smart people don't leave their money "unattended".

    "Tax Payer had to bail them out ....", because left wing politicians (eg. Frank, Dodd, Levin) FORCED Fannie & Freddie, etc. to 'lend' money to people to buy $500,000 houses when the people would have a hard time paying $1,000 a month in rent. This was the nucleus of the housing bust AND the resulting

    credit crunch!


  • Report this Comment On May 11, 2010, at 8:34 PM, kerammf wrote:


    Capitalism works only if you have complete information, and honest, one page disclosure written in bold (size 18) fonts, in plain English. Both sides understanding and agreeing to it. And it wasn't the left wing. It was and is called predatory lending practice which exploded under right wing bush/dick regime. Not all people are as educated as you and it doesn't mean that we can rape all of those that are not so smart. Simplest and honest solution is to lock up rapists, crooks and criminals.

  • Report this Comment On May 11, 2010, at 8:53 PM, ChicagoCubsW wrote:

    No one is mad about the's just the amount that is charge. I've seen a person get $300 bucks in overdrafts... and the banks would be nasty and refund 1 fee. If your low-income...that can be your whole pay check for the week.

  • Report this Comment On May 11, 2010, at 11:00 PM, ChrisBern wrote:

    @FinnMcCoolIRA - you are SPOT ON with your post. I currently profit approximately $300-500/year on banking transactions (and I'm not talking about earning interest). This profit includes paying zero finance charge (I pay off my c/c balance each month), zero late fees (I'm organized), zero ATM fees (I used one of my banks dozens of local ATMs), etc. while earning several hundred dollars a year worth of frequent flyer (hotel, actually) miles on my Chase Marriott Visa card. And I was even given $100 when I opened up my current checking account a few years back.

    @kerammf - so I ask you, who's extorting whom? I think an unbiased reader would have to conclude that I'M extorting my BANKS, not the other way around. Except that "extort" is too strong a word for what I'm doing to them because I'm merely playing by their rules. And "extort" is too strong a word for what they do to financially unorganized people who pay them tons of fees, because those people simply haven't learned how to play the game.

  • Report this Comment On May 12, 2010, at 12:09 AM, dikrew wrote:

    You can always tell a MF writer has hit a nerve by the number of posts!

    I am in the crowd that pays no fees, gets all bonuses available, has overdraft protection for those infrequent occasions when checks clear before I transfer the funds (to maximize interest income). I charge almost everything to my credit card (one card) to maximize the cash discount I get on purchases. I have paid interest on my cards, but rarely and due to my own stupidity.

    Nevertheless, I consider the fees banks charge to be usurious/unconscionable/RAPE of the consumer.

    The real culprit, in my opinion, is our education system that does not teach our youth about handling their finances. We wouldn't have so many dumb financial services consumers if our schools put a few hours into educating elementary and high school students about the basics of interacting with financial institutions and managing credit card transactions.

    Just my opinion!

  • Report this Comment On May 12, 2010, at 12:40 AM, kerammf wrote:


    I am doing well, as well as you do.

    Extortion is word not strong enough. What they do is crime, mafia style activity and nothing less. If you are getting 11 billions in fees, it means that's all you do is feesing, and it's not what banking should be about. You learn their game so do I. Unfortunately they are stiling/extorting from those that are poor and not as smart as you. Very often taking money from social security checks and putting people over the edge. I know dozens of such examples. It's not only immoral to take advantage of person that is less educated and less savvy than you are, it's criminal. And that's exactly what they do, by lies hidden in pages of microscopic print, quick talk, confusion and computerised programs chasing sequence of checks clearing that guarantee maximum punishment and obscene profits. Yet it's not enough, they want to be bail out when all money disappears for the vault. If that's not crime, I do not know what is?

  • Report this Comment On May 12, 2010, at 2:25 AM, ChrisBern wrote:


    Your line of logic is tempting, but it's neverending: Should we also protect these less educated and less savvy consumers from paying too much for a car? Should we not let these under-educated citizens buy an Abercrombie & Fitch shirt for $75 that cost them $10 (if that) to make? Perhaps we should have someone escort these uneducated folks around town all day to ensure that their lack of schooling and savvy isn't costing them money when they make ANY financial decision, such as loaning money to an untrustworthy acquaintance or sending money to a tele-evangelist?

    Perhaps if these people aren't smart enough to know when their due date is or what their balance is or which bank's logo stands for which on an ATM, then the proposed regulation should be to not allow them to have a bank account in the first place?? Because by your description, they don't seem mentally capable of properly using financial services in a way that benefits them. I think I'm on to something here...if Congress wasn't so in bed with the bank lobby, they would pass this legislation in a heartbeat, as it would give them the paternal warm and fuzzy that they al seem to crave...

  • Report this Comment On May 12, 2010, at 12:00 PM, mountain8 wrote:

    DrRoberts1 :

    If we made so much money from the TARP debacle, Where's it at? I don't see any talk about lowering taxes because the government (for shame) made money. I only see talk and action about raising taxes (Kansas legislators voted yesterday to raise sales tax 20%). I don't see that gain being used for anything worthwhile like paying down our untenable debt.

  • Report this Comment On May 12, 2010, at 12:38 PM, mountain8 wrote:

    (Note: I bank in a Credit Union that does not have a local branch... I can't skip merrily to the nearest ATM belonging to them, it's a few hundred miles away.)

    Atms have one negative for the banks and probably for our credit system that I have never heard mentioned.

    Say I go to an ATM that charges $3 per anything. If I just want $20 that's a 15% charge to access my own money in a convienient manner; a bit userous in my mind. To be efficient, I am forced to withdraw my max amount each time I push those little buttons ($500). That makes my cost only .6%, a massive savings percent-wise.

    The result is the bank/CU loses use of the $480 that I would have left in the bank if there weren't such a charge. Plus I'm walking around with more money in my pocket than I'm comfortable with, refer to muggings, impulse buying etc.

    At banking interest below 1%, it's cheaper for me to buy a safe and keep all my cash at home. ALL OF IT.

  • Report this Comment On May 16, 2010, at 3:31 AM, MyDonkey wrote:

    I agree with kerammf. Bank fees are cash grabs that hurt the poor. The less money in your account, the more fees you pay.

    I bank at a Credit Union that only has branches in 3 villages within a 20 mile radius of home. If I travel beyond that I have to use another bank's ATM that charges $2 to $3 for a transaction that costs the bank, what, 25 cents? 50 cents? Rip-off.

  • Report this Comment On May 17, 2010, at 3:26 AM, gqgianni wrote:


    Here's something I posted on another site:

    "I don't believe in a Government that protects people from themselves." -Ron Reagan

    The the REAL marginal cost on average to process a transaction is about 1.75$ not just the 36 cents they mention. That is a statistic from 1997. Count in inflation and several other u represented costs and the marginal rate increases by a large amount.

    The only reason big banks are able to offer free ones for their customers are because there's just enough non customer transactions to offset the coasted associated with tying up a huge sum of capital, which is from 10k and up to 100k per location (especially the large banks ATMs). Also, money sometimes takes 3-4 days to hit your account again, every week in fact on weekends and holidays--which happen to be the busiest. That means even MORE capital needs to be tied up. Opportunity cost of money + the fact that banks basic revenues come from lending money mean they have that much less money to lend so they need to be profitable. Trust me, I'm not. Defender of big banks but economically the ATM industry has to make a profit to offset costs, which have gone up ply because of the credit crunch and inflation. When it turns around, supply and demand and innovation will lower costs of machines and will drive down the price. This has already started to happen.

    The only reason you see more and more ATMs is because they have gone from 10k a piece to 3k a piece. So now independent operators can offer lower prices over time as competition increases. Price capping the industry will not just hurt the industry, it will completely kill it and even have an opposite effect--banks will start charging their own customers since they won't be able to make enough on the .50 cent transactions on the non customers. Remember banks came out with ATMs as a direct RESPONSE to demand from consumers. ATMs are a result of consumer surplus created by competing banks offering free services to get more clients. These are self sustaining services that will not be able to operate with these cuts and so convenience will be cut away from consumers further slowing the economy and forcing people to drive further wasting time and gas and hurting the environment and having them pay .50 at their own bank while also cutting hundreds of thousands of jobs from manufacturers, independent operators, technicians, sign makers, electricians, installers, home depots, and merchants who get charged 2 percent+ per swipe to accept credit cards which will marginally multiplied by millions of transactions shift money into the private sector instead of in the hands of industry related employees that would actually spend the money and stimulate the economy through the purchases of more goods and services though the money multiplier effect.

    Wow, mouthful, but I am an economist so you really have to look at the big picture here. Plus, artificial price control is a very thin line. What's next, government or price fixing on everything?

    I am an Economist and in the past investment banker with 3 major banks and insurance companies, so I know what I am talking about. I like the novel idea of limiting fees, but market needs to dictate the price. I agree with Wall Street reform on the incentive structures on which Advisors get paid, however, this doesn't make sense fundamentally with America, capitalism, or free-market enterprise. This will not hurt the industry, it will completely kill it altogether, along with technological advances, red-box style ATMs, and other types of ATMs that don't just dispense money--ones that in the future will dispense convenient items such as extra cell phone batteries, chargers, recycling electronics (check out Eco ATM in San Diego).

    Please look at the big picture, this bill will be putting hundreds of thousands of jobs from honest, hard working, tax paying Americans at risk of losing their jobs Aren't we trying create them? That's the whole point!

    In fact, the only people that MIGHT slightly benefit (albeit an ambiguous effect) will be Visa, MC, and AMEX if ATMs phase out and we use an electronic currency system, which is SCARY to say the least what the government could do with that type of power. Finally, merchants, small businesses, etc, will be forced to pay Visa/MC/AMEX 2-3% + .35 cents per swipe on average to process transactions. When you look on a small level, that doesn't look too bad, but when companies are getting 10% NOI profits, 2% of that now becomes TWENTY (20%) of their profits! Going to a private sector which won't go to pay industry related employees, and merchants (who receive a small benefit from the ATMs (about 25% of the ATM operators profits) which will hire less employees, have less money to fix their little shop, gas station, etc. THIS WILL CAUSE MARGINAL SUPERFICIAL INFLATION because companies will be forced to increase their prices marginally to offset the lost revenue due to processing transactions. So, a cash paying customer is actually paying for the convenience of credit paying customers. Bottom line, somebody has to pay money at some point to allow this money to be accessed easily. Isn't this the point of currency? Replaces the bartering system? Well there's a cost to protect it (banking) in vaults for instance, and there's overhead to cover. The banks have to make it somewhere. If anything, independent ATMs will help keep major big banks from increasing prices, the competition drives the prices down.

    This cuts jobs, lowers convenience, and shifts money to a private sector that is not producing jobs. It will shift consumer surplus to producer surplus, which is the opposite effect we are going for in the Economy. GDP will slow, velocity of money will slow, efficiency will decrease. I can go on and on!

  • Report this Comment On May 17, 2010, at 3:26 AM, gqgianni wrote:

    Another good argument from another blogger:

    Harkin Amendment for ATM Price Controls Will Limit Customer Convenience and Choice

    An amendment by Senator Harkin (D-Iowa) would cap ATM fees at 50 cents per transaction. While this

    sounds attractive, the reality is that such a price control will make many ATMs uneconomical and will lead to a dramatic reduction in the number and availability of these terminals and stop any production and distribution of new terminals. This will mean greater inconvenience for consumers and fewer choices. It means loss of revenue from convenience stores and small retailers that lease space to ATM owners and who rely on the ATM to boost sales. Sales of new ATMs will cease, impacting all the jobs supported by them.

    Today, most individuals pay nothing for access to ATMs as banks typically do not charge their own customers for use of their own banks ATM. For people who do not have an account at that bank, the access fee delivers cash to them regardless of where they are in the country or the world.

    Consumers Are in the Drivers Seat Regarding ATM Prices:

    Consumers ATM usage is based on choice and convenience, and today they have more choices than ever: theycan use their banks ATM for free, use an ATM that is in the same shared network for free, get cash back with a debit purchase, or use an out-of-network ATM for a fee (some banks offer rebates or allow a few fee free transactions at out-of-network ATMs).

    According to a national telephone survey of 1,000 consumers in August 2009, 56 percent said they paid no banks fees at all including ATM fees. Another 14 percent said they paid $3 or less per month for any type of bank fees. Consumers are taking advantage of the many choices they have available. A price cap on fees will mean that there will be fewer ATMs available for both customers and non-customers of a bank and thus, fewer choices.

    Consumers are advised of the fee at the ATM and given the choice to discontinue the transaction if

    they do not want to pay the fee. Federal law requires that a general notice of the fee be posted at the ATM

    and that the specific amount be provided on the screen before the consumer continues with the transaction.

    A Boom in ATM Deployment Has Resulted From Flexible Pricing:

    ATM deployment has grown dramatically over the last 15 years, as has the number of ATM transactions. Sixtyeight percent of all ATMs are off-branch locations (retailers, airports, arenas, etc.). Access fees have led to innovations and new services, such as deposits without envelops that provide an image of the check at the ATM, which has added to customer convenience. Importantly, the expansion of ATMs has been to locations that are typically more remote (e.g., rural areas, airports, subways, malls) and are located in low-traffic areas. These are also more expensive to manage. If a price cap were to be put in place, these machines would be the first to be eliminated. Simply put, for any ATM where the revenues do not exceed the costs that ATM machine will disappear. At 50 cents per transaction, many will disappear.

    The Marketplace Should Decide Prices for ATMs, Not the Government:

    We should not turn back the clock; price controls have failed in the past. Price controls give consumers fewer choices, inhibit innovation, put a halt to future ATM growth, and will shut down thousands of ATMs. Since the advent of access fees in 1996, the number of ATMs has more than tripled to a total of 425,010 giving consumers more choices and more convenience than ever. Before access fees or surcharges were allowed, ATM growth had stagnated, as the costs of deploying, servicing the machines cash and deposits, depreciation, site improvements, and network and other communications costs made expansion impossible. Without reasonable access fees, there would not be the enhancements which provide additional services from ATMs.

    Congress should oppose the Harkin Amendment that would hurt consumer choice.

  • Report this Comment On May 18, 2010, at 1:41 AM, binkenhiemer wrote:

    Making the argument that ATM's were all financed by the higher transactions fees is at best niave. Banks enjoy three major incentives to speed up their deployment: 1) limiting costs of brick and mortor locations, 2) lower labor costs, and 3) customer capture and retention. All of these go far beyond the $2.66. The innovations that others point to are all a factor of the above items. Which saves more money, A) deploying new ATM features, or B) having a customer visit a bank? If you answered A, you either work for a bank or don't understand the costs.

    In fact this is the biggest act of collusion we have seen in an industry. My bank points at your bank for their nasty high transaction rates, just as yours points at mine. The independents are chump change.

    I will make the point that banks have shorted themselves grasping the transaction fees. The ATM could have been a wonderfully great advertising system. Ever picked up gas at Sam's. Put refi rates on the screen while a non-customer is waiting and you could get more customers. BUT do you really feel like being a customer to someone charging you $5 for a transaction that essentially disappears behind zeros on the right side of the decimal point? I actually look at the screen of a CashPoints ATM. In fact, a local CU captured my business with their advertising. My old bank lost a big cashflow customer and a very tasty mortgage.

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