What to Watch For When Your Bank Merges

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If you haven't had your bank merge with another in your lifetime - well, you haven't lived all that long. If it hasn't happened to you yet, it will. Here's what you need to know to protect yourself.

As 2011 comes to a close, so did a lot of banks. Check out our 2011 list of failed banks – all 54 of them. Many of them were acquired by healthy banks, and even some of those healthy banks merged this year. The biggest was Wachovia merging with Wells Fargo.

If it seems like banks are merging or folding into other banks nearly every day, you’re not too far off – in 2010, 205 banks did just that, according to one report [PDF]. And that doesn’t include 157 “FDIC-assisted transactions,” which is a nice way of saying those banks were seized by the government and forced to merge.

If new ownership makes you nervous enough to leave, here’s a video that will help. Check it out, then meet me on the other side for more.

Why Banks Merge

Of course, banks don’t combine to serve you better. They do it to shore up their own shaky finances and make more money for themselves. This trend probably isn’t going away anytime soon. So what should you do if it happens to you?

In my experience, a few minutes of your time can save you lots of trouble – and even earn you a few bucks. Here are some tips…

1. Keep an eye out for fee hikes. The first bank account I ever opened as an adult was at Barnett Bank, which was bought out by NationsBank in 1997, which in turn was bought out by BankAmerica in 1998, which became the (in)famous Bank of America. Not surprisingly, I discovered that whenever banks merge, the one with the higher fees usually prevails. So when you see the word “merge,” think “fees.”

2. Look for savings. Then again, by the time Barnett (a Florida bank) became Bank of America (an accurate name), I scored some better deals. For instance, the minimum balance for my checking account actually went down. (Sadly, and not surprisingly, it went back up later.) Of course, other fees went up, like bouncing a check. But since I’ve only ever done that once in my life, I didn’t care.

3. Search for perks. One reason I stayed with Bank of America was just because it’s so darn big. While I missed the customer service of Barnett Bank, I didn’t miss trying to find a Barnett ATM when I needed one. Those “out-of-network” ATM fees are killers. But B of A ATMs are as prevalent as Starbucks.

4. Pay attention. When banks merge, human error emerges. I remember the first time I got a BoA monthly statement in the mail – then another, identical one arrived two days later. I took both to the nearest branch and had it cleared up. Nothing sinister about it, but if there’s one thing I want to be accurate, it’s my bank records. And around that same time, I heard horror stories of Barnett customers who received no statements for months.

5. Know how to complain. If I had suffered a problem bigger than double statements, I would’ve complained up the B of A chain. Of course, in the midst of a merger, no manager would likely care about little ol’ me. But they care about something called the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. It even sounds ominous, doesn’t it? The OCC is a federal agency founded nearly 150 years ago to “charter, regulate, and supervise” national banks. If, in a merger, your accounts weren’t properly transferred, and if your new mega-bank blows you off, the OCC is where you go for results.

6. Join a credit union. We’ve mentioned this before (7 Reasons You Should Join a Credit Union This Week) but this doesn’t have to be an either-or. Fortunately, when my first bank was being merged, my employer had a credit union available. In the end, I got a car loan from the credit union that beat the pants off B of A’s offerings, but I still benefited from being a B of A customer when it came to ATM locations, the sheer number of branch locations, and a few other perks. So you can have it both ways.

Stacy Johnson

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