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Going to a bank teller may cost you


As part of the movement sweeping the banking industry to supplant branch workers with automated services, the nation's 10th-largest bank announced yesterday a broad-ranging plan to charge some customers as much as $3 each time they use a human teller.

Under the plan, First Chicago Corp. said, customers who choose a checking account that does not require a minimum balance would pay the fee if they went to a teller when they could have completed the same transaction using an automated teller machine or telephone banking system.

Only those customers who keep either $2,500 in a checking account or $15,000 in a combination of checking and interest-bearing accounts would continue to have free, unlimited access to tellers, the bank explained. The plan is to begin in May.

A few major banks already give discounts to customers who do not use tellers.

But the plan by First Chicago, where fees charged for tellers and other bank services depend on the size of a customer's account, appears to be the most comprehensive by a major bank.

"It is a bold move on their part," said James Greene, a partner in Andersen Consulting in San Francisco. "They are telling the public and the market what the cost of their interactions will be."

Yesterday, some consumer advocates criticized First Chicago, which operates more than 80 branches in the Chicago metropolitan area,

"Banks are enjoying record profitability, so they have no need to impose a new fee that will particularly disadvantage those groups who can least afford it -- namely, older persons, kids and the poor," said Stephen Brobeck, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America, an advocacy group in Washington.

A spokeswoman for First Chicago Corp., Lisabeth Weiner, said the bank instituted the program in response to surveys in which customers complained that they did not like paying certain charges, such as fees for failing to maintain specified minimum deposits.

Ms. Weiner said the bank believed that 80 percent of its customers would have lower overall costs under the new program.

But she acknowledged that the rest could incur higher charges unless they changed their banking practices.

"If they don't want to pay the fees, they will find a way not to," Ms. Weiner said.

Several major banks, including Bank of America, the BankAmerica unit, and Wells Fargo Bank, both based in San Francisco, have started offering discounts on monthly checking account fees to those customers who agree to use ATMs or to do their banking by a telephone program instead of going to a teller.

But if a Bank of America customer enrolled in such a program uses a teller, a fee of $2 a visit is imposed, a bank spokesman said.

Consultants say banks want to start such plans because a transaction involving a teller costs a bank six to 12 times that of one using an ATM, which, in turn, is two to four times as expensive as a telephone transaction.

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