Man fights bank for his 'lifetime' free checking

April 25, 2012 7:23:33 PM PDT
When you buy something with a lifetime guarantee, do you ever think about what "lifetime" really means? A Bay Area man opened a checking account that was free for life, but that was before his bank got swallowed up by other banks.

This consumer's account stayed free for 40 years and then fees showed up on his statement. He demanded the bank live up to its promise no matter how old the promise. Robert Whitten was a 17-year-old high school junior in Virginia in 1971 when he made a great financial decision.

"Virginia Commonwealth Bank was opening a new branch in Arlington, Virginia and if you signed up now, you got free checking for life," said Whitten.

Robert said none of his friends were all that impressed, but he immediately hopped a bus, went across town, and signed up.

"I'm 17 years old. I'm thinking, 'that's going to last me a long time, free checking for life,'" said Whitten.

A lot has happened since then. Whitten grew up and moved to San Francisco. His bank was swallowed up by a lot of other banks.

"From Commonwealth of Virginia, to Virginia National Bank, to Sovran Bank to Nation's Bank..." said Whitten.

He kept the same account all this time, and true to promise, it stayed free all this time. Then, Nation's Bank merged with Bank of America. Whitten became a BofA customer and not too long ago, his free checking slipped away.

"They said, 'We've been charging you a service fee.' And I said, 'Why is that?' 'Well, we sent you a letter. We changed the terms of the bank,'" said Whitten.

The freebie ended last fall after 40 years. It happened when his account dropped below the $1,500 minimum and these $14 monthly charges kicked in. Robert called the bank.

"They said, 'Well yes you did have free checking for life, but that expired,'" said Whitten. "But I thought it was free checking my life, not the life of the promotion. I decided to see if I could fight it."

That's when he contacted 7 On Your Side. We contacted Bank of America and it looked back in time, and sure enough BofA said Robert did have a lifetime promise -- his lifetime. The bank could not discuss the case citing privacy reasons, but did say, "We typically honor legacy free checking account agreements, as we have done in this case."

So, BofA refunded him $168 in charges and placed a permanent fee waiver on his account.

"Of course, I'm not sure how permanent the 'permanent' waiver is. I'm hoping it's pretty damned permanent," said Whitten.

Whitten says with all the bank fees today, he is very glad he had the wits to open that free account.

If you opened a "free for life" account that started charging you later, let me know about it. Click here to contact us.


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