Bank robs customer: a cautionary tale

Americans spend billions of dollars in bank fees every year, and at least one customer, Judith Tremblay, is a little irritated about it. She has good reason. She's been stewing over and trying to fix what she feels is an injustice for over a year now.

Tremblay, 43, had been a customer at Citizens Bank for 12 years when she noticed a monthly fee on her and her husband's bank statement. She asked her spouse about it, and he replied that he assumed it was a standard charge that they had to pay. After all, it was there every month.

Curious, Tremblay called the branch near her Salem, New Hampshire home and learned that the $17.50 monthly fee was an error. Because they had something called Circle Gold Checking, the Tremblays were supposed to be exempt from the fee. But instead, the $17.50 had gone unnoticed.

When Tremblay asked for her money to be returned, she learned that she could, indeed, get a refund -- but only for the last three months: $52.50.Tremblay can do math. The bank had been charging the Tremblays $17.50 every month for possibly 12 years, which would be $2,500. Maybe it had been 9 or 10 years. She didn't have bank records stretching back 12 years in order to find out. She asked Citizens Bank if they could determine just how long they had been improperly debiting money each month, and they said that they didn't know, but they could do some research.

The research would cost Ms. Tremblay $35 an hour.

Fuming, she declined.

There's a little more to this story, like the letter that Ms. Tremblay sent to her bank, after a series of phone calls. The letter can be found on the blog at the web site of Matt Baron, a publicist in Chicago, who I know and have worked with. Judith Tremblay is Matt's older sister.

Now, much as I feel for Ms. Tremblay, I can see the bank's side, sort of. They've been sending the statement to the Tremblays for umpteen years, and Judith's husband has presumably looked at his statement every month for years and never noticed the discrepancy. It is his responsibility to go over his statement every month.

And yet -- assuming this story is true, and I have no reason to believe otherwise -- it was the bank's mistake. Even if there is or should be a statute of limitations on bank errors, three months? Why not a year or two or five? Why shouldn't the bank eat the $35 an hour research costs and figure out what they owe the Tremblays and at least give them half, if not all, of their money?

Banks are generally pretty dedicated to making customers pay for their errors with overdraft fees and non-sufficient fund charges. In fact, earlier this year, as reported in this CNN story and many others, the General Accounting Office came out with a report that gave the tally for money Americans paid in bank fees for 2006: $36 billion.

And the report's conclusion? That Americas are "ill-informed" about our banking fees.

No kidding. Apparently some banks are ill-informed, too.

Geoff Williams is a business journalist and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale). He is currently poring over his own bank statement.
Read Full Story