Yesterday, I read an article in The New York Times that made my blood boil. It is well known that Jewish Law and American business practice do not see eye to eye on whose responsible for making sure that merchants charge a fair price for their wares. The Mishnah in Bava Metziya makes it clear that the responsibility falls on the merchant to be within one sixth of the market value of a particular item, while American business invokes caveat emptor "let the buyer beware". This, however, is what happens when you rely on the foxes to guard the chicken coop.
When Peter Means returned to graduate school after a career as a civil servant, he turned to a debit card to help him spend his money more carefully.
So he was stunned when his bank charged him seven $34 fees to cover seven purchases when there was not enough cash in his account, notifying him only afterward. He paid $4.14 for a coffee at Starbucks — and a $34 fee. He got the $6.50 student discount at the movie theater — but no discount on the $34 fee. He paid $6.76 at Lowe’s for screws — and yet another $34 fee. All told, he owed $238 in extra charges for just a day’s worth of activity.
Mr. Means, who is 59 and lives in Colorado, figured employees at his bank, Wells Fargo, would show some mercy since each purchase was less than $12. In addition, a deposit from a few days earlier would have covered everything had it not taken days to clear. But they would not budge.
Wells Fargo Bank is sleazier than those check cashing store fronts that charge high fees for getting your own money. At least they tell the customer what their charging up front. In this case Mr. Means finds out only after the fact that his "overdraft protection" was costing him five times as much as his purchase. Also, his sin is in not realizing that a deposit had yet to clear--not that he had insufficient funds.
Worse yet, is the exploitation of those who use debit cards in favor of credit cards. These are people who are trying to be fiscally responsible by paying as they go, instead of accruing heaps of credit card debt. Their reward is to be clobbered by usurious stealth interest under the guise of penalties--or overdraft "protection".
How do banks defend this practice?
Some experts warn that a sharp reduction in overdraft fees could put weakened financial institutions out of business.
Michael Moebs, an economist who advises banks and credit unions, said Ms. Maloney’s legislation would effectively kill overdraft services, causing an estimated 1,000 banks and 2,000 credit unions to fold within two years. That is because 45 percent of the nation’s banks and credit unions collect more from overdraft services than they make in profits, he said.
Oh, poor baby! Now, we know the truth. Your local neighborhood bank is nothing more than a check cashing storefront masquerading as a respectable institution. They now rely on fees from the more vulnerable in society in order to stay in business. Charging exorbitant fees is a no-risk proposition that allows banks to fund adventurous mortgages that also exploit the poor.
The Torah understood loaning as a means for helping people out of difficult circumstances and therefore eschewed the practice of charging interest. The world could not tolerate this level of idealism, so that the practice of charging interest is reluctantly allowed under Jewish law, but now one can see the perversity of putting a price on money, and the consequences for those who play by the rules. It seems a no brainer that charging these fees would be halachically prohibited. I don't know if I'm more upset by the practice, or by the sneakiness of so called respectable institutions.
I once heard a lawyer joke, but it seems more appropriate for bankers these days. "What's the difference between a banker and a rooster? A rooster clucks defiant..."
There's a special place in hell for these people.