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Beware of those bank fee increases

NEW YORK — I was filing some old bank statements during a routine desk cleanup. One I hadn't opened from last April had a surprise in it. A small slip of paper — a new fee schedule — fell onto the floor.

An unopened bank statement? OK, you got me. No, these days I don't balance my checkbook every month. Simply don't have the time.

But that's not the issue — it's bigger. New fees for services, new "punitive" fees. Some lower, most higher. And only for certain types of accounts.

Now, with all the accounts they offer, do I remember what kind of account I have? Nope.

And there's a bigger issue: my bank — and probably yours too — chooses to notify me once using a nondescript mailing insert. Even if I had opened the statement I probably wouldn't have noticed it. And I still don't know if it applies to my account.

Couldn't they have sent me a computer-generated letter telling me how my fees would change? That would have caught my attention. But did they really want to catch my attention? Probably not.

This sort of disguised disclosure happens with credit cards too. Something buried in the fine print of a new "terms and conditions" piece thrown into your statement. Informative? Proactive? Hardly.

Bottom line: it's worth 15 minutes to double check your fee exposure.

Fee increases are common now. Why? In part, because of the mortgage crisis. That's right, with the mortgage business in the doldrums — or worse, consuming precious bank capital — banks are out to capture cash where they can. Bank ATM fees generated some $10 billion for U.S. banks last year. It's a big deal.

And in today's environment of "gotcha capitalism," where a quoted rental car rate may be less than half of what you'll actually pay, almost anything goes.

Indeed, Bank of America raised its noncustomer ATM fees to $3 last September, and J.P. Morgan Chase and Wachovia followed suit in some markets. Now that's $3 for them, plus anywhere from a dollar to $2 for your bank, to get that $20 you need to pay for parking or whatever. Ouch.

Undoubtedly, there's more to come. Higher fees for insufficient funds, multiple savings withdrawals, point-of-sale use and others. The good news: a few, like online banking fees, are falling (Competition does work, and banks realize they save money too.)

And you should expect increases in required minimum balances for fee-free or reduced-fee accounts. According to a 2007 Bankrate.com survey, minimum balances to avoid fees were up some 25 percent last year to over $3,300.

Jennifer Openshaw is the author of " The Millionaire Zone," CEO of Family Financial Network, and executive director of Debt and Credit Advisors. She hosts ABC Radio's Winning Advice, appears regularly on the Fox Business Network, and serves as an adviser to some of America's top corporations. You can reach her at jopenshaw@themillionairezone.com