Checking fees: Numerous and poorly disclosed

If you think the monthly service charge and minimum balance requirements tell you everything you need to know about the cost of your checking account, you'd better think twice.

The typical checking account has between 20 and 40 fees for everything from using another bank's ATM to having the temerity to talk to a human teller. And because there is no uniformity in how these fees are charged or disclosed, it's extremely difficult for consumers to shop for the lowest-cost option.

"Checking accounts have more fees than prepaid cards , and prepaid cards have a bad reputation because of all their fees," said Odysseas Papadimitriou, chief executive of WalletHub. "There is no way a consumer can contemplate 30 or 40 fees and make a determination about which account is better."

Worse, not every bank makes finding fee information possible, at least for those shopping for checking accounts online, according to WalletHub's latest comparison of checking account transparency.

Out of 25 major banks examined, New York's M&T Bank was the least open about its fees, disclosing just three online. That earned the bank the worst overall score. To find the cost of dozens of additional checking services, you'd have to go into a branch.

The bank that scored the best for transparency was Capital One, closely followed by a group of major banks, including Citibank, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo and Bank of America, which all had identical scores. These banks got passing grades for transparency because the bulk of their checking fees could be found online. But they don't necessarily make it easy.

U.S. Bank, for example, appears to have a simple graph to compare the fees for its checking accounts. But the fine print below the graph notes that "other fees apply" and refers customers to the 24-page deposit agreement. Minuscule type in the deposit agreement lists all the possible services you could get from the bank and, at the bottom of each section, notes whether or not an additional fee would apply.

How much, you ask? For that, the agreement says you must refer to the product brochure or the "consumer pricing agreement." The fourth page of the pricing agreement finally gave up the goods -- U.S. Bank charges 61 different fees for everything from counter checks and collections to getting paper statements.

"The only purpose that's served by having all these fees is to hide the true cost of the product," Papadimitriou said. "Airlines have learned this trick from the banks."

It's worth noting that complaints about the dizzying array of credit card fees in the 1980s led to congressional action that created the so-called "Schumer box." Named after Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who spearheaded the bill, that's the familiar section in credit card offers that discloses all the terms and conditions in a single, easy to read format.

While checking accounts are as ubiquitous and necessary as credit cards, no such law demands clear and consistent disclosure of checking account terms and fees.

WalletHub's transparency survey doesn't attempt to compare fees, but the site has a checking account search tool that can suggest the lowest-priced (or best yielding) accounts, based on the consumer's usage. The tool allows you to select whether you want a consumer or business account; require a local branch; and what other bells and whistles (such as free foreign transactions) you want. It then lists checking account offers likely to be least expensive based on your usage.

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