One search that does not produce any results at all in the Bank of America’s Online Banking website is the words “cascade” and “cascading.” In fact, searches for any keywords that are associated with the negative aspects of online or virtual banking or purchasing do not show results in the search box.

Cascading penalties are a frequent occurrence for online bankers [endnote 15], as can be demonstrated on the numbers of hits for the phrase “cascading overdraft fees” in the Google search engine—stark contrast to the zero hits of the BoA’s site.

Following are some of the headlines that came up in the first few pages of the Google search (these are clickable in electronic forms of this document). These stories range from well-researched articles by major news corporations to screeds by customers who have been stung—probably more in their sense of the rationality of the world than the wallet—by overdraft fees:

One debit-card overdraft can trigger an avalanche—LA Times

Overdrafts: An Involuntary Bank Bailout? –

Banks Can Manipulate Your Transactions, Then Charge You %1750 Overdraft Fee

Chase Barrages Customer With Overdraft Fees – The Consumerist

Documentary Blasts Debit Card Overdraft Fees. – ATM & Debit News

Maryland Politics: Two Maryland victims of banking system meet—Baltimore Sun

Americans for Fairness in Lending – Overdraft Loans

Congress looks to limit debit card fees | Marketplace

Those record overdraft fees |

New overdraft rules: Worst of both worlds? – The Red Tape MSNBC

ISS – Banks: Hit ‘em when they’re young—ISS

Five Sneaky Bank Fees – AOL Money & Finance – Bank of America Complaint – Unreasonable overdraft …

Bank of America’s outrageous overdraft fees = scam .. (NSFW)

It’s surprising that any number of writers for the web (the last of this list is actually a Youtube video) would be united in their opinion that banks are abusing their abilities to levy penalties on their customers. News organizations that one might expect to provide muckraking research on corporations—such as the Los Angeles Times and the Baltimore Sun—are not surprising in these results, but FOXBusiness, and AOL?

The number of stories one the web on the predatory practice of banks are probably only rivaled, among human interest stories, by articles and posts about health, exercise and eating—which is to say, stories that help to explain to panicked readers the behavior of their own bodies, about which we all agree only an inadequate percentage is actually truly known. The interface to the Bank of America website, along with the vagaries of virtual transactions and overdraft penalties, should be easier to understand than the causes of cancer.

The surprising thing, though, is that, despite the interest that the Bank of America’s customers have concerning cascading purchases and how harmful they can be, this information does not appear anywhere on the site. (I did learn the term “cascade” from a BoA representative about ten years ago, but representatives have obviously been told to avoid the word since then.) The world outside of the Online Banking site is rife with horror stories of outrageous penalties, while on the inside, all is rosy.

The Bank of America, via its InfoCenter and other fluff devices, along with its poorly constructed FAQs and search results, pretends to have the customer’s interests in hand in helping them avoid fees. However, a well-constructed tutorial on the details of online banking, or any note of the possibly outrageous consequences of cascading overdraft fees, does not appear on the site. Explanations of where these “fees” actually go—a “fee,” like a student activity fee, should be funneled into some service for the payer—is totally absent.

The Bank of America Online Banking site confuses the job of advertising with the job of educating. It is probably the only instance of a piece of software that advertises—rather than offers serious explanation of (where’s the “help” button), its features as you are using it.

Microsoft Word, for example, does not constantly remind you of how easy it is to use Word as you are creating a document—it’s quite frank about how complex it is, and provides searchable help pages and other features to help you negotiate it. Of course, a mistake does not cost you 4 x $35 in penalties. A sturdy, honest, well-written 30-page manual distributed to any new customer of the site would go a long way to address this [endnote 16].

It is not that concise documents on such subjects in accessible language are hard to write, nor are the concepts so esoteric that anyone with less than a college degree can write them. It is merely that there is an unwillingness by the Bank of America to provide such warnings about its website, which it fails to understand is a complex, and largely imperfect, piece of software that provides many opportunities for accidents.

Appended to this document is a short article published by AOL titled “5 Sneaky Overdraft Traps” that (with a different rhetorical emphasis) could serve as a model for a page of a manual for the site [endnote 17]. There’s more in this article to help a user of online banking than appears in the entirety of the “InfoCenter.”

As mentioned earlier, there is no way to get information online about transactions that occurred more than 6 months previously (or 3 months in the “Available Balance History.”) This is a problem for doing taxes if you are not receiving paper statements as the bank wants you to.

I guess a digital statement could replace it, but having this information searchable would go a long way in educating the user on previous mistakes [endnote 18]. And if you are have had a dispute with a payee from more than 6 months back, you won’t have any easily-available record of having made the payment and might have to pay it twice. There are few features on the BoA that serve the consumer in appealing a case in court—both against the bank and against other businesses.

Certainly, a bank that seems to want to help you would keep this information current, since no one can keep in mind the plethora of ways to be trapped by the site.

This post is a section of Bank of America Online Banking: A Critical Evaluation. This essay is also available as a book which can be downloaded for free at Lulu (where an inexpensive, not-priced-for-profit print edition can also be purchased) and at Scribd. The table of contents for the blog version of this essay can be seen in its entirety here.