Will customers have to say goodbye to free checking?

There's a lot of good stuff going on as far as the government cracking down on the way banks and credit-card companies have been treating their customers lately. The CARD Act kicks into gear next month, and Federal Reserve rules that come into play this summer will stop the frustrating practice of being automatically enrolled in overdraft "protection" programs that zing you for $35 if you go into the red. But there's a drawback to these reforms: Banks are still going to be looking for ways to make money.

Banks were expected to make $38.5 billion from overdraft charges alone in 2009, so they're going to want to make up that shortfall -- along with the money their credit-card units earn that will be curbed thanks to the CARD Act -- somehow. One way they'll probably do it is by reducing or eliminating free checking.

This Bankrate.com article points out that offers of free checking have been dwindling, and many "free" checking programs now come with conditions or catches, such as minimum balance requirements or direct deposit. The article also suggests that customers who want to keep free checking might be limited to online- and ATM-based transactions only. Translation: If you want to speak to a real human being, you'll have to pony up.

Consumer-advocacy groups have already been warning Americans that certain populations -- such as poor people and senior citizens, who are less likely to have computers and Internet access -- will be left behind as banking enters the 21st century. This release from a market research firm summarizes the findings of a study and comes to much the same conclusions. The main barriers to online banking are the age and income level of the customers; older and lower-income people are less likely to have the means to conduct their banking online. For instance, while more than half of higher-income Americans use online banking, only about a third of low-income consumers do. Consumers 63 and older also eschewed online banking, saying they didn't trust the security of online transactions or that they were more comfortable making transactions at a branch.

The results are clear: Americans without disposable income or those living on a fixed income could have to pay to keep their banking status quo if Bankrate's prediction comes to pass.

Readers, what do you think of a checking account that's only "free" if you've paid for a computer and high-speed Internet access, or can afford to visit a branch ATM every time you want to do your banking?
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