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Democrats encourage BofA customers to close accounts

Congressional Democrats are pushing customers to quit doing business with Bank of America Corp., and one lawmaker is aiming to make it easier for them to stop after the biggest U.S. lender announced plans for new debit-card fees.

Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.), a member of the Financial Services Committee, introduced a bill Tuesday that would bar banks from imposing fees on people who close accounts, calling the proposal a response to the Charlotte, N.C., company’s plan to charge some debit customers an additional $5 a month for using the cards.

“As megabanks flirt with menus of new fees, an increasing number of Americans will want to switch banks,” Miller said in a statement. “That is the way things work in a competitive, free market as unrepentant banks are still trying to rake in vulgar profits.”

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Miller’s criticisms echoed those of U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, the Illinois Democrat who successfully pushed legislation restricting the amount banks could collect from retailers for debit transactions. The two lawmakers spoke out after President Obama questioned whether Bank of America has an “inherent right” to charge the new fee, which the company said was aimed at making up revenue lost because of the limits on so-called interchange.

Dodd-Frank Act rules imposed by the Federal Reserve take effect this month. The limits may reduce annual revenue at the biggest U.S. banks by $8 billion, data compiled by Bloomberg Government show.

The new rules cap the fees at 21 cents, plus 5 basis points of the total and a conditional 1 cent for fraud prevention, replacing a formula that averaged 1.14% of the purchase price, or about 44 cents.

Bank of America is already facing pressure from the European debt crisis and concerns over the legal liability associated with its mortgage business.

“New regulations on debit-card interchange fees — which provide no apparent benefit to consumers — will further reduce revenue by additional billions of dollars,” Larry DiRita, a spokesman for Bank of America, said in a statement.

The bank’s shares fell below $6 on Monday for the first time in more than two years. They closed up 23 cents, or 4.2%, to $5.76 on Tuesday.

“Your decision to charge a new monthly debit fee is an overt attempt to make even more profit off the backs of your customers,” Durbin wrote to Bank of America Chief Executive Brian Moynihan in a letter released Monday. In comments on the Senate floor, Durbin called on Bank of America customers to “get the heck out of that bank.”

Miller’s bill would ban banks from charging closing fees to customers looking to move their account. The measure also would require the bank to close the account within 48 hours of receiving the customer request and limit a lender’s ability to report negative balances from closed accounts to credit reporting firms.

As a member of the House minority, Miller would need support from Republicans who opposed Dodd-Frank to advance his bill. Durbin said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday that he has no plans to introduce additional legislation.

In response to a question about Bank of America’s plan during an interview with the ABC News and Yahoo websites, Obama said Monday that it was his “hope that you’re going to see a bunch of the banks say this is not good business practice.”

Richard Hunt, the president of the Consumer Bankers Association, said Tuesday that he was “very disappointed” by Obama’s remarks.

“Recent announcements from banks across the country regarding new fees for debit purchases and eliminating free checking are all widely predicted consequences from the government price controls in the Durbin amendment,” Hunt said.

Durbin pushed to include the debit-fee provision in last year’s financial-regulation law to cut down on the fees that gas stations, convenience stores and large retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Target Corp. face when they accept debit-card transactions. The fees can be the second-highest cost the retailers face after labor.


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