When business and government work together and the results of their efforts benefit consumers, it should be cause for some attention.
It might even be worthy of some praise, even if the motives of the above groups differ slightly. Their common goal over the past several months has been to introduce people in more than 14,000 Maine households to banking.
That number represents about 2.6 percent of all households in Maine. That’s well under the 7.7 percent of all U.S. households that don’t use banks, according to a survey last year by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
The numbers from that survey prompted action by bankers and state government. In August, KeyBank started cashing checks from noncustomers (something virtually all other financial institutions are unwilling to do). Key saw a chance to build good will and perhaps generate some business in the process.
Key branches in Bangor, Brewer and other major centers charge 1 percent of the value for each check it cashes. That is well below the going rate at businesses that specialize in cashing payroll and benefit checks. It’s those kinds of services that lower-income people often can least afford.
Key officials reasoned that, while they wouldn’t make any money on the new check cashing policy, they likely would build some new customers into the bank’s future. That’s a concern at a time when many banks are taking heat for a variety of fees, overdraft protection and other policies some consumers see as benefiting the banks but not them.
By helping people get their checks cashed at a reasonable charge, Key hopes to introduce those people to other aspects of banking. Bank employees with training in financial education will offer classes in setting up a budget, maintaining good credit and using essential banking services.
All of this is of interest to people like Lloyd LaFountain III, superintendent of Maine’s Bureau of Financial Institutions. “Many people pay expensive charges for check cashing and other services from storefront operations,” LaFountain said in a statement last week. The statement announced his agency has partnered with a working group authorized by the Legislature called “Bank on ME” to launch several programs.
One is a new brochure, available in January, detailing the benefits of a low-cost or no-cost account. It explains things like overdrafts and how to open an account, and includes a checklist of questions people should ask to be sure they’re getting what they need.
Another development is the bureau’s online library of consumer resources. You can find it at www.maine.gov/pfr/financialinstitutions.
The bureau also offers one-on-one help by phone for people with questions or concerns about opening low- or no-cost accounts. Staff can also assist with other issues about banks and credit unions. You can get help from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays by calling toll-free 800-965-5235.
Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business memberships are available at modest rates. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for more information, write: Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, go to http://necontact.wordpress.com, or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.