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Looking for a good word concerning ever-burgeoning banking fees?

How about these: zero, zilch, zippo in the way of automated teller machine surcharges. It's true. New York State, land of high taxes and elevated user levies, is relatively free of the beastly ATM surcharge.

And, take heart, Buffalonians: Your local institutions have thus far resisted piggybacking on your ATM usage with an extra fee. At least so far. But that's not to say that non-bank owned machines may not be tapping your wallet for a little extra.

Still, unlike a number of states, the Empire State is nearly free of ATM surcharges. According to the results of a survey of ATMs in 19 states and the District of Columbia by state Public Interest Research Groups, 23 percent of ATMs are surcharging non-account holders, but just 1.8 percent do so in New York State. The survey comes six months after the two national ATM networks, Plus and Cirrus, took off their bans on surcharging by ATM owners.

For you who are unfamiliar with -- or who don't remember -- what the surcharge is all about, here's a short primer. The surcharge is an extra fee levied solely by an ATM owner for transactions made on its machines. For example, you deal with Bank A, but for whatever reason, you use Bank B's ATM. While Bank A may or may not charge you for going outside its system, until this past April and excluding 15 renegade states that allowed the charge prior to April, Bank B would not charge you.

No longer. Now, there is a chance that not only will you be penalized by your home institution for using a "foreign" ATM, but the ATM proprietor also may lay a fee at your feet. The entity doing the charging can be a
bank, thrift or savings and loan, but also can be a non-bank owner that dispenses cash.

Surcharges are possible, and down the road may even be probable; now here's the local reality. None of the big banking institutions contacted are debiting accounts for surcharges, a fact backed up by NYPIRG's state survey, which found just one of 56 ATMs levying the additional fee.

The local banks, however, are studying the potential advantages and disadvantages to instituting surcharges.

"We have no imminent plans to implement a surcharge, but we are looking at it," said Richard Gold, M&T Bank's administrative vice president for retail marketing.

"We're not currently charging surcharges, but we're not ruling it out," said Karl Felsen, a spokesperson for Fleet Bank of New York. Marine Midland Bank likewise has not implemented surcharges.

If you're a financial institution, there is some impetus to implement the surcharge:

It costs money to expand an ATM system. Why not charge outsiders to help pay the freight?

A surcharge is a fee, and fees generate income. Big income. Millions of dollars nationwide. In fact, PIRG estimates that if 23 percent of ATM transactions completed on ATMs not owned by the user's institution had each been assessed a $1 fee, ATM owners would have pulled in $847 million with virtually no additional expense. Not bad pocket change.

Surcharges appear to be most prevalent in tourist areas, in high-growth areas, in highly remote areas and in places where an ATM has a captive audience, like on a Caribbean cruise ship or in a Las Vegas casino.

Since Western New York won't be mistaken for Honolulu, Atlanta, the top of Pike's Peak or the Love Boat, fees are unlikely. Local financial institutions admit that implementing a surcharge to pick up a few bucks may cost them their white hats.

"Obviously, the surcharge is a very touchy subject," said Christine Olsen, Key Bank of New York's Buffalo District marketing manager.

"In Western New York, it's a dogfight to get and hold loyal customers," M&T's Gold said. "A minus (for implementing a surcharge) may be that you forever aggravate a non-customer who might one day be a customer."

Keep in mind most local institutions do not charge their own customers for using their ATMs. Some, like Lockport Savings Bank, will eat any charge for a customer who uses another institution's machine; likewise M&T, provided the customer makes the grade as one of the bank's "relationship" customers.

Key Bank, while surchargeless in this market and throughout the state, has been implementing the fees in Maine, Utah, Idaho and Wyoming, but the locations for the most part are labeled remote areas.

"It's a matter of convenience," Ms. Olsen said. "It's like using a convenience store to buy a quart of milk. Do I drive the extra miles to the supermarket to pay less or do I go to the convenience store and pay more for that convenience?"

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