Customers frustrated by banks' controversial new fees are finding out what industry insiders have known for years: It is not so easy to disentangle your life from your bank.
The Internet banking services that have been sold to customers as conveniences, such as online bill paying, serve as powerful tethers that keep them from jumping to another institution.
Tedd Speck, 49, a market researcher in Kent, Conn., was furious about Bank of America's planned $5 monthly fee for debit card use. But he is staying put after being overwhelmed by the inconvenience of moving dozens of online bill paying arrangements to another bank.
"I'm really annoyed," he said, "but someone at Bank of America made that calculation and they made it right."
Former bankers and market researchers say that it's no accident. The steady expansion of online bill paying, they say, has emboldened Bank of America, as well as rivals such as Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase and SunTrust, to turn to new fees on customer accounts as other sources of revenue dry up. The fees have caused an uproar among consumers and drawn sharp criticism from politicians, including President Barack Obama.
"The technology locks you in, and they're keenly aware of it," said Robert Smith, who was chief executive of Security Pacific when it was bought by Bank of America in 1992. "It's very hard for consumers to just ditch that."
For years, banks have openly sought to attach as many loans and services such as credit cards, mortgages and mobile phone banking as they can to a customer.
What they haven't mentioned are marketing studies such as the one commissioned by Fiserv, which develops online bill paying systems, showing that using the Internet to pay bills, do automatic deductions and send electronic checks reduced customer turnover for banks by up to 95 percent in some cases.
The Occupy Wall Street protesters in New York have also jumped on the debit card fee as one more example of corporate greed. And activists are calling on account holders to switch to nonprofit credit unions en masse on Nov. 5, which they have named Bank Transfer Day; a Facebook page devoted to the effort has drawn more than 38,000 supporters.
As a result, the question of whether consumers will indeed vote with their feet is being closely watched by the banking industry, consumer advocates and legislators. The banks don't release detailed data on customer defections.