Following consumer complaints, the BKartA has launched an informal investigation into bank charges that are levied at cash machines in transactions where the customers' card-issuing bank is different to the bank running the ATM.

The BKartA has sent out information requests to 280 banks to which they have until the end of March to reply. The investigation focuses on the question of whether the banks have, through the charges levied, violated competition law by restricting competition, discriminating between customers or abusing a dominant position.

The BKartA is working closely with the German parliamentary committee (Bundestagsausschuss) for consumer protection which has requested a meeting with the banks' representatives in Berlin to discuss the issue.

Until 1997 bank charges were unified across Germany; all transactions at ATMs not maintained by the customers' card-issuing bank were subject to a charge of DEM 4 (for transactions not exceeding DEM 400). This was abolished following an objection by the network of German regional banks, the "Sparkassen"; who argued that they had a duty to supply and maintain far more ATMs than other banks, thereby giving other banks an unfair advantage. Today, some institutions charge up to €10 for a single transaction and the average bank charge levied is almost €6. Experts have calculated that the actual cost to a bank for an ATM transaction for a customer whose card is issued by a different bank is only €0.63. Additionally, FMH, a group of financial advisers, has reported that in the last six months bank charges have increased in Germany by 13%.

Going forward there seem to be two possible options: either to revert to a unified, nationwide ATM bank charge (which consumer groups have argued should not exceed €2), or to give the consumer more transparency about the bank charges that are being levied at each transaction.

Following developments earlier this week, the banks seem happy to follow the second approach and give consumers more transparency, but seem set on their individual charges. In particular the Sparkassen seem reluctant to revert to a pre-1997 unified charging system. The banks, represented by the Central Credit Association (Zentraler Kreditausschuss – "ZKA") have internally agreed the cornerstones for an agreement to provide more transparency to the consumer. The ZKA now intends to approach the BKartA with this agreement, showing the banks' willingness to cooperate in the informal investigation. The agreement currently foresees that customers are informed about the total amount of the charge levied for their transaction at the ATM before each transaction, thereby giving consumers the possibility to cancel the transaction if they object to the charge.

The informal investigation is ongoing. The BKartA will first analyse the banks' replies to the informal information requests and then decide whether to initiate formal proceedings against the banks.

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