Disappearing debit rewards

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - Debit card use surpassed check writing in 2003. Many offer extra perks for things you buy everyday. It's free for you, but not the merchant.

"The merchants have seen the cost of debit interchange go up because their customers prefer to pay them with a debit card," said Bruce Whitehurst, CEO of the Virginia Bankers Association.

They pay an average of 44 cents for every swipe. Congress ruled it excessive, and the Federal Reserve agreed. The rate was cut to 21 cents a swipe. Big banks make an estimated $20 billion a year from swipe fees, so when new regulations take affect in October, they'll be looking to make up the losses.

"If you take the revenue that supports checking accounts away and you still have the fact that it costs banks $400 or $500 a year to offer you a checking account, it would appear that something has to give," said Whitehurst.

And it's already has. JP Morgan Chase canned its rewards program in February. In March, Wells Fargo announced its debit rewards program would not enroll new customers. In April, Suntrust customers learned they could no longer earn points and the points they have need to be used by the end of the year.

"Banks will have to consider whether they need to reduce the rewards programs..and or impose other fees and charges on at least some checking accounts which would mean the consumer would be impacted adversely by this legislative action, not benefited by it," Whitehurst said.

This swipe limit only applies to banks holding more than $10 billion in assets, which exempts banks like Union First Market and the Virginia Credit Union.

"It creates a great opportunity for consumers to begin to shop around and rethink their banking options," said G. William Beale, CEO of Union First Market Bank.

But both smaller banks fear limitations with retailers accepting their cards that carry higher interchange rates.

"I have this greater respect or skepticism of the market forces that will be in play here because they'll be this 2 tier system," Beale said.

To keep your free checking, you can expect to see minimum balance requirements, companion savings accounts and direct deposits. Read your disclosure statement carefully and talk with someone at the bank to ensure you'll keep your checking at no cost.

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