Bank of America customers in Massachusetts appear to be stuck paying some of the highest fees in the country for the indefinite future.
For instance, the banking giant charges customers $12 per month for its eBanking account in Massachusetts if they use a teller or receive paper statements. In almost every other state where the bank operates, customers pay around $9.
The differences were supposed to be temporary. Bank of America started testing a new slate of checking accounts in Massachusetts, Arizona, and Georgia in early 2011, promising to standardize fees and roll out the new accounts nationwide by the end of this month.
But the bank has postponed the rollout and extended the testing indefinitely — leaving some customers in Massachusetts and two other pilot states paying higher fees than customers elsewhere. As a general rule, national banks tend to offer similar products and fees across the country.
Wayne J. Panzner, 56, of Middleton, is among the 170,000 Massachusetts customers who were switched to one of the new accounts. He’s avoided a monthly maintenance charge so far because he has direct deposit for his paycheck, but said he has been hit with other annoying fees.
“It’s absurd,” said Panzner, after learning of Bank of America’s unequal treatment of customers in different states. “It’s ridiculous.”
Bank of America spokeswoman Anne Pace said the tests primarily affect new customers who set up accounts in Massachusetts and the other two pilot states since 2011. Pace said the bank only switched 5 percent of existing customers in the three states — including 170,000 in Massachusetts — to the new checking accounts.
The new checking accounts are designed to help the bank boost profits by encouraging customers to use fewercostly services (like tellers), bring more business to the bank, or pay higher monthly fees. Like most banks, Bank of America has had trouble making money on traditional checking accounts because of ultra-low interest rates, the weak economy, and new regulations.
Bank of America launched two new checking accounts in the three pilot states that provide ways to avoid the monthly fees, such as using direct deposit and keeping a minimum balance. But many of the requirements are more stringent than those for checking accounts offered elsewhere by Bank America.
Massachusetts customers with Enhanced checking, for example must maintain a $5,000 minimum monthly balance to avoid a maintenance fee, compared with just $1,500 a month for an equivalent account offered in most other states. The Enhanced account, however, does offer a way to avoid fees not available elsewhere — using a Bank of America credit card once a month.
The state’s consumer affairs chief, Barbara Anthony, said she was troubled that Bank of America raised fees for some customers in the state.
“What you have here is an institution that is manipulating fees in a way that is getting more money out of existing customers for no added services,” Anthony said. But, Anthony said, the fees appear legal — as long as the bank warned customers before moving to them to the new accounts.
She added that customers are free to “vote with their feet” and move money to other banks if they don’t like it.
Greg McBride, senior financial analyst at the financial services website Bankrate.com, said it’s possible Bank of America needs more time to gather information on how the new fees are working before deciding whether to roll them out everywhere. But McBride laughed when asked whether Massachusetts customers should be annoyed about paying higher fees than customers in some other states.
McBride noted that customers have plenty of options. Bankrate.com, which tracks banking fees and rates, found that 39 percent of banks and 72 percent of credit unions offer so-called free checking accounts with no monthly maintenance fees. State-chartered banks in Massachusetts, typically community banks, are required to offer free checking to customers 18 or younger or 65 and older.
“People are not hostage to the fees,” McBride said. “If they don’t want to pay the fee, they don’t have to pay the fee.”Todd Wallack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @twallack.