Overdraft fee overload: Can we get a little help here?

Banks will charge a shameful $38.5 billion in overdraft fees to the American public this year, and most of them are the ones who can least afford it -- the working poor and the unemployed who are constantly juggling utility bills and can barely afford groceries.

Congressional Democrats are finally moving toward limits on banks' ability to charge overdraft fees, calling them "criminal" and a "rip-off." Given my long and once-cozy relationship with the banking industry, I agree -- and think it should have happened years ago.

We had a particularly good year in 1997, in what is now Wachovia's investment banking division. My former favorite boss had taken the position of head of investor relations, and he came in the wake of annual financial reporting to proclaim the truth: the real money was in fees.

We'd made millions structuring syndicated loans and securitizing assets, yes, but the bank's millions of retail customers had funded far more profit with their overdraft and ATM fees. It was double what we'd made in all of investment banking, even in this record year.

I was uncomfortable at the time -- heck, I was a retail customer and paid my share of ATM fees even though I worked in a building with a First Union cash machine right there next to the elevator banks, and a branch a few yards to the south.