Banking Problems? Uncle Sam Wants to Help

A new consumer site on banking and credit is a good first step, but it may leave you frustrated.

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Can't get your credit card company to see that you don't deserve those late fees? Aggravated that your bank won't correct that error on your checking account? A new government website, helpwithmybank.gov, aims to aid consumers who feel as if they're hitting their heads against financial institutions' brick walls. Here are some pros and cons of the new site:

Pros
• This is the first user-friendly online help center set up by a federal banking agency, and it's a key regulator, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which oversees the largest of the nation's banks and all the big credit card companies.

• The website has advice even on matters outside the OCC's reach. For example, the OCC doesn't monitor credit reports, but the site provides a link to annualcreditreport.com and reminds consumers they're entitled to one free report from each of the major credit bureaus every year.

• The question-and-answer format is easy to follow, and it's based on the real most-frequent questions among the 70,000 annual calls to the agency's consumer help line (800-613-6743).

• Consumers get guidance on how to file a formal complaint against a bank. Sometimes, this can be effective; the OCC helped to return $7 million in disputed charges to consumers last year and $30 million over the past five years, with more than half of the disputes involving less than $200.

Cons
• Despite the inviting format, there's still a lot of jargon only bureaucrats and lobbyists would love. Few would understand the statement that banks can "export the interest rate" of their headquarters's state. Why not just spell out the harsh truth? Since most credit card companies are based in Delaware or South Dakota, they can charge any interest rate they choose because those states have no usury limits.

• The OCC site won't be able to help you file a complaint if your bank happens to be a credit union, a savings and loan, or a state-chartered bank. They all have different regulators. Comptroller John Dugan is calling for the agencies to work together to create a one-stop website and form for complaints regarding any flavor of financial institution.

• A common theme runs through the Q&A: Yes, you might see finance charges even if you paid your account in full; yes, your bank can charge a fee for paying by phone; yes, a bank can place a hold on deposits made in cash. The message Travis Plunkett, legislative director of Consumer Federation of America, sees: "Give up! Banks can do whatever they want!" Congress is considering changes in the law to address many of the most nettlesome problems consumers have with banks.