Banks are charging commission to try to stop clients visiting branches, says watchdog

Clients waiting for attention in a bank branch.
Clients waiting for attention in a bank branch. / SUR archive
  • Consumers associations warn that vulnerable clients such as the elderly are suffering discrimination for not using the internet

Online banking, which means customers can check their balance or send a transfer at any time of day or night, no matter where they are, is becoming more and more common, and banks have embraced the changes with enthusiasm. But there is another side to the story. These new facilities have led the banks to reduce staffing levels and close branches, and clients who prefer to do their banking in person are beginning to feel unwelcome, unless they are there to contract a new service.

With the number of bank branches reduced by almost half - in 2008 there were 1,407 in Malaga province and now there are only 787 - the system is trying to channel as much business as it can through digital methods and reduce the number of clients who visit the bank to carry out transactions. This is done in two ways: encouraging and facilitating the use of online banking, and penalising those who turn up at their local branch. Consumers associations are warning that the banks are doing this in two ways: by charging commission for transactions which used to be free, and restricting the hours during which certain transactions, such as paying bills, are permitted.

Alejandro García, of consumer federation Facua's legal department in Andalucía, says the closure of branches and restrictions are "worrying" especially in rural villages where there are now no banks or a branch that only opens for a few hours a week. "It is unfortunate for people who don't have internet and need personal attention," he says. He insists that the authorities should take action to prevent this "financial exclusion" of vulnerable people, such as the elderly.

Banks are also charging more commission than ever before: there are now 36 different types, according to the Bank of Spain, including account maintenance, overdraft, debit and credit cards, transfers, use of ATMs, paying money into someone else's account and in some cases even for printing out a statement.

Banks say these can be avoided by, for example, having your salary paid into your account, spending a certain amount on your card in a year, contracting insurance or a savings product, or keeping a minimum balance in the account. However, consumer associations warn that these should be analysed carefully because in the end they could end up costing even more than the commission. Be sure to read the small print, compare such offers with other banks, and only contract what you really need, they advise.