Want To Get Bank Fees Waived? Complain!

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In many cases, complaining won’t get you anywhere. But when it comes to bank fees, a well-executed gripe can save you a bundle.

Nearly half of bank customers have gotten a checking account, credit card, or other financial fee waived after complaining about it, a new survey found. According to Credit.com, 44% of 1,000 respondents said they’d been successful getting a financial institution to forgive a fee.

“Bank fees are not that hard to get waived, especially if the bank realizes they have something to lose,” says John Ulzheimer, credit expert at CreditSesame.com. “Many banks don’t want the confrontation… that could result in losing a customer,” he says.

People seem to have luck with both penalty fees as well as service fees. The survey found that some common penalty fees are the most frequently waived, with 35% of respondents getting an overdraft fee waived and 24% getting a late payment fee waived. Another 10% got an annual fee waived and 6% got a low balance fee waived.

Overdraft fees can run $35 a pop or more at big banks, and annual fees of $60 or more aren’t uncommon, so it pays to speak up — even if it’s your fault you got hit with the fee in the first place. Credit.com’s survey found that 8% of respondents succeeded in getting a fee of $100 or more waived.

But there’s a right way and a wrong way to try to accomplish this. Consumer advocates offer these suggestions to make your complaint more effective.

(MORE: The Credit Card Companies With the Most Consumer Complaints)

Address it immediately. “Generally, it’s much easier to get a fee waived shortly after it occurs,” says Gerri Detweiler, president of consumer education at Credit.com. Check your statements regularly so you can catch any fee as soon as it’s assessed, she advises.

Be nice. In many cases, the company is doing you a favor, so attitude goes a long way. “Being polite and asking for help is likely to get you further than demanding that something legitimately charged to your account be removed,” says Edgar Dworsky, founder of ConsumerWorld.org. Even if you were hit with a fee because of an error on their part, a professional demeanor will get you further than an all-caps rant or its telephone equivalent.

Pick up the phone. “The phone call should be your first strategy,” Ulzheimer says. “It’s easy and will save you time.” If it’s convenient for you, he says visiting a branch is also an effective approach because a bank manager doesn’t want an argument in the middle of the branch. And as the saying goes, if at first you don’t succeed, try again. If a customer service rep turns you down, Dworsky suggests calling back — sometimes you’ll have better luck with a different employee, he says.

Using social media to resolve your gripe is a mixed bag. Banks really, really don’t want an irate customer’s tale going viral and giving them a PR headache, but some companies really haven’t gotten the hang of how to resolve issues via sites like Facebook and Twitter. Last month, Bank of America wound up with egg on its face after angry Tweets from Occupy activists triggered painfully generic automated replies like, “We’d be happy to review your account.”

Go up the food chain. If you know someone who works for the company, see if they can help. But even if you don’t have friends in high places, it can pay to escalate your complaint if the front-line service reps can’t help. Ask them to pass you along to their manager or supervisor. “You’ll likely find someone more helpful and more empowered to waive fees at that level,” Ulzheimer says.

Blow your own horn. If you’ve been a loyal customer for a number of years, keep a lot in the account, or use your credit card often, say so. And if this is the first time you’re asking to get a penalty fee waived, point that out. “Remind the bank’s representative how good of a customer you are and how many other offers you get in the mail from competing banks,” Ulzheimer says. “Be firm and remind them that your business is portable.”

Just don’t lie or fudge the details of your account history, since the rep can probably see it when they’re talking to you.

(MORE: Ticked Off at Your Bank? Finally, a Sympathetic Ear)

Bring in the big guns. If you think you’re being hit with a fee that’s illegal, let the company know you’re going to reach out to regulators — then do it. “That tells them you mean business and that you know the law and it gets results,” says Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director at U.S. PIRG. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has an online “complaints desk” where people can lodge a complaint about a credit card, home loan, bank account or other financial matter.