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GROUP CRITICIZES BANKS FOR NOT PROMOTING BASIC BANK ACCOUNTS

A consumer watch dog group released a report Thursday criticizing banks across the state for not doing enough to promote their basic bank accounts.

The New York Public Interest Research Group surveyed 62 branches of 30 banks this spring in Buffalo, Binghamton, Albany, New York City, Long Island and Westchester County about their basic banking account by posing as potential customers. Although they go by several names, the basic accounts were required by a 1994 state law and designed to allow even the poorest consumers to open an account.

NYPIRG found half the banks do a poor job promoting basic banking through their signs, brochures and representatives.

But the New York State Banking Deparment, which reviews basic banking compliance in its examinations, says the study is seriously flawed and unfair to the banks.

"This report is worth about as much as a bounced check, which is to say that it is completely worthless," said Bethany Anne Blankley, director of of public information. "New York is one of only two states in the nation that actually has a basic banking law and the banking department keeps a close eye on our banks to ensure they are in compliance with the law."

Banks also dismissed the report, saying they assess a customer's need and then recommend an appropriate bank account -- which may not always be basic banking.

"The relationship manager wouldn't simply present a list of products," said Elizabeth Smith, public relations manager for KeyBank. "We ask how many checks they write or what type of balance they would regularly keep in the account."

Representatives from HSBC Bank USA had a similar reaction to the survey.

"This product is not the best product for more than the majority of our customers," said F. Christopher McLaughlin, head of personal banking for HSBC Bank USA. "It's for someone who writes a limited number of checks. There are other accounts where they could avoid monthly fees and have unlimited use."

Five banks with branches in Buffalo were surveyed: Charter One Bank, 1893 Elmwood Ave.; CitiBank, 409 Main St.; HSBC Bank USA, 1000 Elmwood Ave.; KeyBank, 274 Elmwood Ave.; and M&T Bank, 709 Elmwood Ave.

NYPIRG used a five-star rating system. Banks got one star if there was a sign in the branch promoting the basic banking account. They got another star if they had any written information available. They got a third star if that information was in a separate brochure and a fourth star if that information was available in the lobby. The fifth star was for the bank representative mentioning the basic account without prompting.

NYPIRG sent at least two different raters to each of these branches.

In Buffalo, the scores ranged from a low of zero stars for KeyBank to a high of two stars for CitiBank. The other three banks received one star.

However, the Charter One branch that received only one star has a huge banner in front of the branch proclaiming its basic banking account, said Karen A. Bohn, Western New York division president of Charter One Bank. There's another banner inside.

But Michael F. Davoli, the NYPIRG project coordinator in Buffalo, said that banks downplay the basic banking accounts because they don't make as much money off those accounts as they do their other accounts.

"There's a trend in Buffalo for banks to take advantage of people in Western New York," he said.

In fact, last year four banks -- HSBC, M&T, KeyBank and Chase Manhattan -- each contributed $75,000 to a state fund to promote basic banking after the state attorney general announced that banks are reluctant to promote the low-cost accounts.

NYPIRG is a Ralph Nader-inspired group that concentrates on consumer, environmental and government reform issues. It receives most of its funding from contributions, college student fees and foundation grants.

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