Odds are you’ve been asked to pay a small convenience fee when making an online transaction or credit card payment. But these economic annoyances could be coming to an end.
During the State of the Union address on Tuesday night, President Joe Biden reiterated that he wants to ban these so-called “junk fees” charged by banks, ticket vendors and airlines that disproportionately impact lower income households and people of color.
“Junk fees may not matter to the very wealthy, but they matter to most folks in homes like the one I grew up in. They add up to hundreds of dollars a month,” Biden said in his speech. “I know how unfair it feels when a company overcharges you and gets away with it.” He added, “Not anymore.”
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These fees, which about 85% of Americans have encountered, are often tacked onto credit card bills and the cost of concert tickets and air travel in the form of convenience or service fees at the time of purchase. They are a big money-generator for the firms that charge them, with consumers shelling out at least $29 billion each year in extra charges, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). But Biden and his allies have argued that these fees are not clearly advertised to consumers—and they can drive up costs far beyond what people had expected.
The cable industry has been notorious for using hidden fees to raise prices and disguise the true cost of service, making an estimated $28 billion a year from charging company-imposed fees. Some cable providers impose fees for regional sports, broadcast television, network access and maintenance, and switching providers, which can add up to more than $40 per month in hidden fees.
U.S. hotels made more than $2.7 billion in 2018 for “resort” or “destination” fees that are often imposed for specific amenities, like free internet service, gym entry or pool access. The amount travelers pay for these fees varies by location and property, but typically costs around $40 or more per night. Many travelers find these fees frustrating because hotels often keep them hidden or charge for basic perks that should be included in the nightly rate of the hotel.
Banks have also relied on extra fees as a way to support free checking accounts, which are being increasingly offered. In recent years, late fees on credit card payments have surged as high as $41, with consumers being hit with $12 billion a year for late fees alone. That can be particularly harmful for lower-income Americans already dealing with record-high interest rates on their credit cards.
Biden’s call to action on junk fees is part of his plan to win back working-class voters who are more sensitive to high prices. Although he didn’t make any flashy proposals during his State of the Union address, the call to ban junk fees was one of Biden’s more actionable economic appeals aimed broadly at people feeling anxious about their personal finances. He also vowed to lower insulin costs and raise taxes on the wealthy.
“Americans are tired of being—we’re tired of being played for suckers,” Biden said.
He urged Congress to pass a new “Junk Fee Prevention Act” that would get rid of “excessive” fees on tickets for online concerts, sporting events, and entertainment; ban airline fees for family members to sit with young children; put a stop to early termination fees for TV, phone, and internet service; and block surprise resort and destination fees.
The proposal has already garnered attention from members of Congress and other federal agencies. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), for example, began examining last fall whether it needs to create rules against junk fees.
“It’s beyond frustrating to end up spending more than you budgeted because of random, arbitrary fees,” said FTC Chair Lina M. Khan in an October statement announcing the effort. “No one has ever felt that a ‘convenience fee’ was convenient.”
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The FTC is currently asking for comments from members of the public about their views on junk fees and whether regulation is necessary. So far, almost 12,000 comments have been posted ahead of the Feb. 8 deadline.
The CFPB, which protects consumers from financial abuse, is also cracking down on junk fees. In September, the agency ordered Regions Bank to refund at least $141 million to customers who had to pay surprise overdraft fees—a now-illegal practice that charged for overdrawing a checking account at the time of purchase even if the bank showed the account owner had enough money. Last week, it proposed a rule to reduce credit card late fees to $8, saving consumers as much as $9 billion a year in late fees.
CFPB director Rohit Chopra said on a call with reporters on Feb. 1 that thousands of individuals submitted comments with stories about being charged fees for things that weren’t in their control, particularly over these surprise overdraft and late fees. “This loophole has morphed into a multi-billion dollar bonanza,” Chopra said. “We worry that credit card companies are actually hoping that consumers are a day or two late. While it might be fair to charge customers for extra costs that credit card companies are incurring, that’s not what we see here.”
But from the banking sector’s perspective, a ban on these fees would erase an easy source of profits. Lindsey Johnson, president of the Consumer Bankers Association, said after Biden’s announcement that the President “mischaracterized” bank fees as junk. A potential ban on the extra fees, she said in a video posted on Twitter, would do “nothing to address the underlying reality that Americans today are paying higher prices for goods and services.”
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