AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Georgia banker: We're not taking advantage of anybody

Overdraft fees are a big source of revenue for some banks - but not for a Georgia-based bank, despite what a new report is showing.

The report, by a California consumer group, showed that Ameris Bank collected more overdraft fees per account than any bank in the nation over the first nine months of 2016.

But a calculation based on revised information the bank filed with federal authorities paints a much different picture of the Moultrie-based bank. It didn't sock customers with an average of $176 per account in overdraft or insufficient fund fees. Instead, it collected only about $42 per account.

While that is still higher than the national average of about $17,  there's a good explanation for that, said Ameris Chief Operating Officer Dennis Zember Jr. It involves one of the nation's biggest banks: Bank of America.

He also noted that Ameris is one of the fasting growing banks in the country.

"We did not get here by overcharging customers and upsetting them," Zember said.

"We're in some markets that are not very wealthy, and we are careful to make sure that our services and charges are not designed, even accidentally, to take advantage of anybody."

Overall, revenue from overdraft fees made up less than 5 percent of the bank's income, he said.

As to how the calculations could have gone wrong, here's what the AJC learned.

The California consumer group that published the report on overdraft fees said that it based its calculations on detailed public financial statements banks file each quarter. These are known as "call reports."

The group grabbed the reports as soon as they were posted online, said Emily Rusch, executive director of the consumer group.

But Ameris' initial report had incorrect data, Zember said. Because the requirement to break out information about revenues from overdraft and NSF fees is new, the bank wasn't clear on what to report. It later revised the call report, after getting clarification from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., he said.

An FDIC official said it is not unusual for there to be an adjustment period when new information is required in the call reports.

Why do overdraft fees matter? Rusch said that they are one measure consumers might use in choosing banks. All told, banks collect billions in such fees each year. The consumer group plans to update information about overdraft charges quarterly, to make it easier for the public to get it, she said. We are careful to make sure our services and charges are not designed, even accidentally, to take advantage of anybody - Ameris COO.

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About the Author

Lois Norder is Senior Editor for Investigations in the newsroom at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.