BofA ate my debit card, then tried to charge me $5 for a replacement – 90 minutes later, I got my $5 back. Did I win?

This is the start of a bad day. Wait until you see what happens next.

Bank of America recently destroyed my debit card, then tried to charge me $5 for a replacement. Really! Worse still, it took about 30 minutes on the phone for me to get that $5 replacement fee waived, something no rational person would do — heck, that’s less than minimum wage in some places.  Of course, your correspondent is no regular rational person.

Here’s what happened. Last weekend, I went to a Bank of America ATM, planning to make a deposit.  When I put my card in, the machine behaved badly.  It sucked my card in, but nothing happened on the screen. I hit cancel a few times — no luck. A full minute, maybe two, went by.  Finally, a message came up saying “For your security, we have retained your card. Please contact your financial institution.”

That didn’t make me feel particularly secure. My bank didn’t even recognize its own card, apparently. As I stood dumbfounded, and cardless, in front of the machine, the warning message changed. Now it read:

“Sorry, temporarily out of service. Please visit one of our other ATMs nearby.”

Since I was now without my debit card, that advice wasn’t much help.

Fortunately I grabbed my smartphone in time…

It seemed clear that there was some kind of machine error. Fortunately, I had access to other plastic and other banking tools, so this was truly just a nuisance. I made a mental note to visit that bank branch the following day. When I did, the teller was perfectly lovely, and after I gave him my license, he went over the machine, hit some buttons, reached into the back, and gave me back my card. With a warning.

It had been bent badly by the machine, he said. But no worries, that’s easily solved.

“Do you use mobile banking?” He asked. When I said yes, he advised me to report the card as damaged so I could promptly get a replacement. Meanwhile, he told me I could use the card until the new arrived. Be sure to say it was damaged, he repeated, so that the account number would stay the same and I wouldn’t need replacement checks and so on. Good advice. Or so I thought.

I called up the BofA app and quickly recognized my afternoon was going to be ruined by a Gotcha fee. When I asked the app for a replacement, I was told the cost would be at least $5 — more if I wanted the card quicker.

I was astonished by this. BofA wrecked my card, and here was the bank trying to charge me for a new one.  I imagined any reasonable bank employee would quickly waive the fee, and I was right.  Problem was, I had a rather epic experience trying to speak with any reasonable bank employee.

First, I pulled out my laptop and logged in to the bank’s website, assuming I’d have more options to communicate my concern with the bank.  I was wrong. I would have settled for an email to customer service, but I couldn’t find a way to send one. The message center for the website had no obvious way to create a new message.

So I held my nose and called the toll-free number.  After arm-wrestling my way through the not-very-interactive voice response system (“Did you know you can use mobile banking to get most of your questions answered?” or something like that), I was placed in a queue for a real human.  Not surprisingly, a machine told me there was an unusually high call volume and I’d have to wait. Messages like this always make me wonder: When is there a usual call volume? And if the call volume is always unusually high, well,  is that really unusual?

After a not-that-unreasonable 6 minutes or so, a polite operator answered my called and verified my identity. I then told my sob story: “Inserted card-ATM ate card-don’t want to pay.”  He said, “Sure, but I have to send you over to deposit accounts.”  And before I could utter, “Waaaaaiiiitttt,” I was placed into another virtual queue.

And there I held on for perhaps another 10 minutes, (“Did you we have an award-winning mobile banking app” or somesuch.)

Eventually, an operator there answered. He was also a gentleman, got my situations immediately, waived my $5 fee, ordered me a new card, etc.

Total call time: 27 minutes.

That’s not my only time hit however. There was the time on the app, the time on the web, the time at the ATM, the second walk to the bank, the time on the line to wait for a teller.  I’m going to peg the entire episode at more like 90 minutes. Roughly the time it took you to read this story.

I drag all this out because I spent 90 minutes getting $5 back from Bank of America. As I said earlier, no rational person would do this.  I did it, because that’s what I do. I don’t recommend you do this.

I do recommend you take a moment to look at the fee schedule for your bank. While I was on hold, I did a little research and found that most banks don’t charge a debit card replacement fee. According to this site, of the top 10 banks, seven don’t charge any fee, and an eighth only charges a fee if you need more than one replacement every four years. PNC, step right up! You charge $7.50 for a new card, even more than BofA. But according to the bank, only customers who’ve lost their cards must pay. Damaged card holders get a waiver.  (Please, no jokes about me being a damaged cardholder.)

I don’t actually think $5 for a replacement card is outrageous. These chip cards aren’t free, and I’ll bet a small percent of consumers end up demanding the lion’s share of replacement cards.  Giving consumers one free mistake every four years seems reasonable to me, but I don’t spite the bank charging $5. I do spite the bank making it nearly impossible to handle exceptional situations like mine.  And I spite my friendly neighborhood teller for not telling me I would be charged a $5 fee after his bank ate my card.  He should have warned me, or better, taken care of the new card and the fee right then and there.

Gotcha Capitalism isn’t just about hidden, sneaky fees. In fact, its not really about fees at all. It’s about dehumanizing the relationship between consumers and corporations. There’s probably no real bad guy in this story. My local teller probably isn’t empowered to solve my problem. There’s just a system designed to wear people down so they pay up. After all, telephones and computers never get tired of saying no.  Gotcha.

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About Bob Sullivan 1524 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.


  1. I probably would have done the same thing. I despise when big brother tries to take advantage of me. Even though it cost some time, I would consider it a win. Also, for every person who reads this post (including me), may they steer clear of BofA or any other institution who behaves in such a way. Maybe the loss of future customers will cause your $5 to become a $1000 win for all of us. For that, I thank you.

  2. I have had multiple issues with PNC. Last weekend their drive-up ATM near me decided to take my ATM card (for their bank) then stop working; meaning I had to get up and be at the bank on Sat at 9am to get it back, once I proved I was me. (I was leaving for a work trip early Mon AM.)
    Next issue with them (and maybe other readers have it) is that their ATM cards are not made well…I work in the industry and the card plastic/sig panel/mag stripe PNC uses does not hold up well to normal ATM card use, and normally a year out from when it’s going to expire I need to call for a replacement since the mag stripe gets degraded/sig panel won’t keep ink signature on it/numbers wear down…and I sit down to wait for the runaround when I request a new card.

    BoA: I won’t use their mobile app, and their website leaves a lot to be desired, on top of all the various gotcha fees they charge.

    This is why the time cost to us, the customer, is so high when we want to change banks/fight these fees…is being dinged $5, some dollars there, etc. over time worth it to change to another bank? For some people it is, others it isn’t.

    • Christopher, In reference to numbers wearing off the card, or signature… when I get a new card and I sign it, I always use permanent ink (sharpie), then I wait for it to dry and then cover the entire signature and the CCV code with clear fingernail polish. For me, that usually does the trick or at least gives the card a bit more life.

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