Editorial Policy

Check Your Recycling Bin: BofA Settlement Checks Look Like Junk Mail

Allie Johnson

December 20, 2012

I was checking the mail recently when I saw a little white postcard that looked like junk mail.

I started to throw it in the trash, but then I saw the phrase “checking account overdrafts” in the return address. It was a check from Bank of America. For $9.40.

At first, I was surprised: Bank of America? Then, I remembered — I was a customer years ago, but I got so irked by something that happened, that I switched to a local bank.

It turns out that my tiny check (thanks for the latte, BofA) was my cut of the settlement of a class action lawsuit filed against the bank for the very reason I left.

This was back in the day when I was young and broke (OK, less responsible with my money) and wasn’t great at keeping track of my purchases. I also used my debit card for everything, even a $2 coffee or a pack of gum. Now I use cash for that type of thing. It helps me to budget better because I have a set amount of “want” money for frivolous stuff each month and when it’s gone, it’s gone. It’s also much easier to quickly check my bank account online, to make sure everything looks okay, when it’s not cluttered with tiny purchases. Live and learn.

Back then, I logged into BofA’s website one day and was shocked to see my account was more than $200 in the red thanks to multiple overdraft fees. I noticed that, the day before, I had several small transactions, such as gas, a bagel for breakfast and trips to the grocery and pet store. I also paid a big bill — a utility bill, maybe.

Staring at the screen, I realized the bank had posted the biggest transaction first, so I got hit with about six overdraft fees instead of the one I would have had if the bank had posted my transactions in the order they were charged. I called customer service, but they wouldn’t budge: They said they were doing me a favor by posting that way (coincidentally, the very way that earned them $200 in fees instead of $30). The rep said that bigger amounts tend to be more important — for example, rent checks — so any customer would want those to post first.

I had all but forgotten about that $200 of mine that BofA kept, but since they were sending me a check, it did feel silly and a little unfair to get back such a small fraction of my money. I’m not the only one. At ConsumerismCommentary.com, a commenter named Tessy, who says she got $12, wrote: “The money is for the lawyers … unbelievable.” And a guy named Ned wrote: “I received $2.55 out of the over $1,000 they stole from me … so the suit got me a nickel for each $35 I was charged.” The prize for the smallest amount might go to a commenter named jasio, who, because he is still a BofA customer, got his cash deposited into his account: 36 cents.

The share each person got was determined based on how much they actually paid in excess overdraft fees that were charged because of the order in which the bank posted items to their account. So, for example, if you had $100 in your account and simply bought $110 in groceries and got an overdraft fee because of it, don’t expect a check. Several commenters on Consumerism Commentary said they got hundreds of dollars. Rita wrote: “I almost threw it away because it was a postcard check (it looked like an insert from a magazine). I got almost $400 back, so I’m very glad I looked at it.”

I did think it was a little weird that the checks looked just like junk mail, and it made me wonder if it was done intentionally and what happens to any unclaimed money. Forbes.com reports that any unclaimed money goes back to Bank of America, and they have to use it for “pro-consumer projects.”

BofA says the final award checks were mailed in late November. If you think you should have gotten a check in the settlement (maybe you accidentally threw it in the recycle bin?), the FAQ on the settlement website tells you how to get the money owed.

Maybe you’ll get enough to at least buy dinner.