Bank ends its hidden ATM fee

The Star-Ledger, April 10th, 2002

The Star-Ledger Archive COPYRIGHT © The Star-Ledger 2002

Date: 2002/04/10 Wednesday Page: 023 Section: BUSINESS Edition: FINAL Size: 504 words

Bank ends its hidden ATM fee

First Union customers can use machines free

By SAM ALI STAR-LEDGER STAFF

First Union said yesterday it will stop charging its own account holders a fee when they use unmarked ATMs around the country that the bank owns.

"Weve made a decision to expand the privileges of free ATM use for our customers to include all of our ATMs, whether they are branded or not," said First Union spokeswoman Fran Durst of the change, which takes effect Thursday.

The Star-Ledger first reported on Saturday that First Union, the second-largest bank in New Jersey, operated a number of unmarked ATMs at the Trump Plaza casino in Atlantic City, where it has an exclusive contract and charged its own customers a $3 fee for using them.

Banks typically offer customers free withdrawals at machines they own.

The First Union Trump Plaza ATMs simply say "World Cash Center." The ATM screen is equally nondescript It has a picture of Trump Plaza and flashes "Welcome to Trump Plaza" when customers insert cards.

Anybody who tries to withdraw cash from these ATMs cannot tell First Union owns them because the bank does not put its name on the machines or on the screens. First Union customers are charged the fee.

Critics argued First Unions policy was disingenuous and contradicted the banks own policy agreement with its customers.

Yesterday, First Union, whose parent corporation, Wachovia Corp., is based in Charlotte, N.C., said the practice would end.

The new policy will affect all unbranded First Union ATMs - not just the ones in New Jersey, Durst said. Roughly 90 of First Unions 4,700 ATMs nationwide are unbranded.

Consumer advocates applauded First Unions move yesterday.

"First Union should be commended for acting so quickly to make sure their customers are not paying a fee they shouldnt be paying," said Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, director of New Jersey Citizen Action, the states largest consumer advocacy group.

Bank customers are usually only penalized when they use another banks ATM. Their own bank charges a fee for using a foreign ATM, and the machine's operator adds a surcharge as well.

That's why bank customers who want to avoid paying ATM fees are often advised to use their own bank's ATMs.

But some banks across the country have gotten creative, installing unmarked ATMs and then penalizing their account holders for using them.

In New Jersey, the practice was limited to the ATMs First Union has at Trump Plaza.

But nationally, other banks have engaged in the practice as well, including Chicago-based Banc One and two other North Carolina-based banks, Bank of America and BB&T Corp.

Asked if the First Union would refund any ATM fees to its customers as a result of its policy change, Durst, its spokeswoman, said no.

"We're looking forward, not looking back," Durst said.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________ Sam Ali can be reached at sali@starledger.com or at (973) 392-4111.

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