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Originally published October 19, 2010 at 8:59 PM | Page modified October 19, 2010 at 9:01 PM

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Bank of America shifts fee strategy; no more free checking

Bank of America said Tuesday it lost $7.65 billion during the third quarter due to a charge related to credit- and debit-card overhaul legislation passed over the summer.

The Associated Press

NEW YORK — Bank of America said Tuesday it lost $7.65 billion during the third quarter due to a charge related to credit- and debit-card overhaul legislation passed over the summer.

The bank also announced a change in its consumer-banking strategy to focus on providing customers with incentives to do more business with the bank instead of generating revenue through penalty fees such as overdraft charges.

The bank is already starting to implement some changes and has cut overdraft fees on small amounts that customers charge to their debit cards.

"Customer scores have improved, complaint volumes are down," CEO Brian Moynihan said on a conference call with analysts to discuss earnings.

The new legislation that caused Bank of America to take the $10.4 billion charge limits fees banks can collect when merchants accept debit cards.

BofA said that change would reduce future revenues in its card business.

Bank of America, which does business with half the households in America, announced a dramatic shift Tuesday in how it does business with customers.

One key change: Free checking, a mainstay of American banking in recent years, will be nearly unheard of.

Almost all of the largest U.S. banks are either already making free checking much more difficult to get or expected to do so soon, with fees on even basic banking services.

New laws

It's happening because a raft of new laws enacted in the past year, including the financial-overhaul package, have led to an acute shrinking of revenue for the banks. So they are scraping together money however they can.

"I've seen more regulation in the last 30 months than in the last 30 years," said Robert Hammer, CEO of RK Hammer, a bank advisory firm. "The bottom line for banks is shifting enormously, swiftly and deeply, and they're not going to sit by twiddling their thumbs. They're going to change."

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Moynihan acknowledged that overdraft fees were generating a lot of income. But the bank was also losing customers who were often taken aback by the high hidden fees.

Spike in complaints

Checking accounts were being closed at an annual rate of 18 percent, he said, and complaints were at an all-time high.

So Moynihan ended overdraft charges on small debit-card transactions. He says the rate of account closings has since dropped 27 percent.

To make up for lost fees, he also started thinking of new products. In August, the bank introduced a new "eBanking" account, where customers were offered a free checking account if they banked online.

The catch: If they opt for paper statements, or want access to tellers for basic transactions, they would be charged a monthly fee of $8.95.

"Customers never had free checking accounts," Bank of America spokeswoman Anne Pace said. "They always paid for it in other ways, sometimes with penalty fees. Now they have the option to avoid those fees."

Excluding the one-time charge, Bank of America earned $3.1 billion, or 27 cents per share, in the three months ending in September. That easily topped the 16 cents per share analysts polled by Thomson Reuters were expecting.

Analysts don't typically include special charges in their estimates. BofA's shares fell 54 cents, or 4.4 percent, to close at $11.80 amid a broad market decline.

The better-than-expected results were due mainly to a sharp drop in losses tied to defaulting loans. The bank set aside $5.4 billion to cover bad loans during the third quarter, compared with $11.71 billion during the same quarter last year.

JPMorgan Chase, which reported results last week, also benefited from a big drop in losses from failed loans.

BofA and other banks have been stung in recent weeks by accusations that they failed to properly review documents used in foreclosures.

BofA had halted foreclosures in all 50 states but said Monday that it would resume foreclosure proceedings in 23 states after reviewing cases there.

Moynihan said it would take three to five weeks for the bank's employees to review the documents and restart the foreclosure process.

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