Free banking 'a myth', says watchdog

Caroline Cassidy

Consumer watchdog Which? has criticised British banks for ripping off customers with low interest rates and high overdraft fees.

free banking a myth
free banking a myth

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The campaign group insists free banking is "a myth", and slammed banks for lobbying for the right to charge a monthly fee to cover cash machine withdrawals, direct debits, standing orders and cheques.

While many of the high street banks advertise "free" banking services, Which? claims that most are raking in large sums from current account customers via hidden charges, poor interest rates and exorbitant fees for unarranged borrowing.

Which? cited fees charged for using a debit card overseas, which could see holidaymakers paying almost £15 for making two £100 cash withdrawals and two £50 direct debit card payments abroad.

The watchdog also suggested that overdraft fees were particularly problematic for customers. The likes of RBS/Natwest and HSBC not only charge 19.9 per cent APR on authorised overdrafts, but going over the arranged limit for just two days per month resulted in charges ranging from £120 to a staggering £900 a year.

Those safely in the black, on the other hand, gain little benefit due to paltry interest rates.

And since free banking is a "myth", Which? suggests the idea of charging customers up to £15 a month for the privilege of having a current account is "a slap in the face for consumers".

Peter Vicary-Smith, executive director of the consumer watchdog, told the Daily Mail: "When some people are paying up to £900 a year in bank charges it completely shatters the myth that banking is free.

"The suggestion that banks should increase charges to avoid more scandals defies logic and is a slap in the face for consumers who are being hit hard by one of the worst financial crises in recent times.

"It's a disgrace that the very people who bailed out the banks are being asked to pay more for the most basic accounts, while the industry continues to be rocked by scandals like PPI mis-selling, Libor rate-rigging and IT failures. Banks must be far more transparent about their fees and charges so that people can clearly see what they already pay."

What do you think? Should there be tighter controls on bank charges? Leave your comments below...