If you don't pay attention to the small print on your checking account, it could cost you big.
Banks are raising fees on everything from ATMs to overdrafts, looking for new sources of revenue to make up for losses on troubled loans and soured investments.
For consumers, it is easier than ever to overdraw your checking account, racking up costly charges. With a swipe of a debit card, a $3 latte can quickly become a $30 latte if you don't have the cash in your account.
"People are behind and this is one of the things that is pushing them farther behind. It's another belt tightening. It's another frustration," said Jeannine Moore, spokeswoman for the Consumer Credit Counseling Service, with offices in Santa Rosa.
Large national banks have been much more aggressive than regional and community banks about raising fees and enforcing them, according to Moebs Services, a research company that tracks banks and credit unions.
But banks and credit unions, large and small alike, are raising fees.
-- Consumers paid an average $3.43 surcharge for using another bank's ATM, a 13 percent increase over a year earlier, according to a Bankrate.com study at the end of 2008.
-- Stopping payment on a check now costs $25, a 25 percent increase over a year ago, according to Moebs Services.
-- Overdraft fees are $26, a 4 percent increase from a year ago, and up 18 percent from five years ago, according to Moebs.
The increases have surprised analysts. In the past, banks and credit unions have been reluctant to raise fees during economic downturns, said Mike Moebs, who founded his Lake Bluff, Ill., firm in 1983, and provides research for banks, credit unions and government agencies.
"What we have not seen is increases in a recession," Moebs said. "Banks and credit unions are loath to increase their fees because it hurts consumers and small business and that can hurt business."
Bank officials contend the fee increases cover rising costs to provide those services. Further, they said consumers can avoid many fees by changing behaviors, like budgeting their money better.
Exchange Bank, the largest based in Sonoma County, recently raised several fees that had not changed in at least two years, said Craig Van Selow, vice president of retail banking.
"We review our fees regularly. Our fees reflect the market and our cost of doing business," Van Selow said. "Our fees certainly had become competitively low. We made a cautious increase."
Redwood Credit Union recently raised its overdraft fee to $22 from $20, but it is only up from $18 a decade ago, said spokeswoman Robin McKenzie. Most other fees to recover costs of service have not been increased in the past decade, she said.
"Redwood Credit Union reviews our fees annually. Across the board fee increases is not our practice," McKenzie said.
While the increases are relatively small, the cost to consumers can quickly add up.
Steeper overdraft fees have drawn increasing attention from consumer advocates and Congress as banks have made it easier to rack up such debt.
"The real revenue generators are overdraft and insufficient funds fees. It used to be considered a bad thing," said Jean Ann Fox, financial services director for the Consumer Federation of America.