WASHINGTON — Democratic lawmakers are asking the Justice Department to investigate whether Bank of America and other major banks improperly worked together to charge customers new monthly fees for using their debit cards.
Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., and four other Democrats said Thursday that they’ve asked Attorney General Eric Holder to see if big banks violated antitrust laws before announcing the fees.
Welch said the lawmakers have no evidence of collusion. But he said the timing of the fees merits an investigation.
“You don’t have a competitive marketplace,” Welch said.
Bank of America said last month that it would charge its customers $5 a month if they use their debit cards for purchases. Customers who use their cards only at ATMs will not have to pay the fee.
Chase and Wells Fargo are also testing $3 monthly debit-card fees in select markets.
SunTrust, a regional bank based in Atlanta, began charging a $5 debit card fee in June for customers with basic checking accounts. Regions Financial, based in Birmingham, Ala., started charging a $4 fee on Oct. 1 for accounts that don’t meet higher balance requirements.
The fees have sparked public outrage and helped fuel anti-Wall Street protests. Many have criticized the banks for charging to use debit cards after those same banks received hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayer-funded bailouts. Bank of America, Chase, Wells Fargo, SunTrust and Regions were among the recipients of rescue funds.
Bank of America, the nation’s largest bank, said the monthly charge was necessary because the Federal Reserve this year capped the fees that it can charge merchants for swiping debit cards. Congress directed the Fed cap swipe fees under the financial overhaul law.
On Thursday, representatives for Bank of America, Chase, SunTrust and Regions declined to comment on the lawmakers’ request for a probe.
Also requesting the investigation were Democratic Reps. John Conyers of Michigan, Keith Ellison of Minnesota, Mike Honda of California and Raul Grijalva of Arizona.
The lawmakers said statements made by some banks and their trade associations raise questions about possible coordination.
In a letter to Holder, the lawmakers cite an e-mail by the Texas Bankers Association to its members. The e-mail was sent after legislation failed that would have delayed the cap on swipe fees.
The e-mail said: “Now the industry must regroup and each and every one of you must decide how you are going to pay for the use of debit cards. It may be through a monthly fee.”
The Merchants Payments Coalition, an organization of trade groups for a variety of retailers, supported the lawmakers’ move.
Bank of America will start charging the fee early next year. The other banks haven’t said when they will make a final decision on whether to roll out the debit-card fee more broadly.