- Associated Press - Monday, May 9, 2011

NEW YORK (AP) - If you’re willing to pay a $35 fee to overdraw your checking account, just text your approval to the bank.

Under a pilot program at Bank of America, customers would be able to instantly reverse a declined transaction.

News of the test program comes just a year after the bank stopped permitting transactions that overdraw a customer’s account at the register. At the time, Bank of America touted the decision as a consumer-friendly policy that would prevent customers from unknowingly overdrafting their checking accounts and incurring penalty fees.

The company’s decision was also a response to regulatory changes; a rule that went into effect last summer prohibits banks from enrolling customers in overdraft programs without their active consent.

Under the new pilot program, Bank of America says customers would be fully aware that approving an overdraft would result in a $35 fee.

To start, customers will have to sign up for the program. If they then try to make a purchase that’s declined at the register, they would immediately get a text from Bank of America asking if they want the purchase to go through.

The text would notify customers of the overdraft fee.

The customer’s approval would only be good for that particular transaction. And if a customer replaced the money in their checking account by the end of the day, they would not be charged the fee.

Bank of America plans to roll out the pilot early next year, but declined to give details on the scope and duration of the test.

The bank is also considering a few other ways to let customers approve overdrafts of their accounts, said Laurie Readhead, a Bank of America executive. But she noted that it’s in the company’s best interest to clearly disclose fees in any new option it pursues.

Ever since Bank of America stopped permitting overdraft transactions last year, she said customer complaints have gone down and retention has improved.

“That said, we do want provide options to our customers,” she said.

Customers at Bank of America can currently only overdraw their accounts at ATMs, where they are first notified of the $35 fee.

Overdraft programs have long been a target for consumer advocates who say customers often don’t realize they can spend more than they have in their accounts. Advocates also note that penalty fees, typically around $35, are often assessed even if customers overdraw their account by just a few dollars.

Such missteps have resulted in important fee income for banks in the past. In 2009, overdraft fees brought in a record $38.5 billion for banks, according to research firm Moebs Services. It’s not clear how the new regulation banning automatic enrollment in overdraft programs has impacted fee income.

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