For decades, banks have been trying to get consumers to open checking accounts with freebies like toasters, George Foreman grills, and even iPods and Home Depot gift cards.
Now, they’re upping the ante with offers of $100, $150 or even more in cold, hard cash. This week, Capital One launched a promotion offering a $200 bonus to customers who open a Rewards Checking account through Feb. 28, 2010. JP Morgan Chase offers $125 to anyone who opens a checking account by Jan. 15, and Bank of America offers $100 through Feb. 28.
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While cash incentives aren’t new – Chase has been offering cash bonuses for four or five years, according to spokesman Tom Kelly -- at a time when consumers are starting to receive their holiday shopping bills and are mindful of their budgets, such promotions may seem particularly attractive. And thanks to new credit-card legislation coming into effect next month and new regulations limiting banks’ ability to charge overdraft fees, banks are likely to make such offers even sweeter. "Banks are wondering how they’ll recoup some of their lost revenue, so they’re focusing on generating revenue through checking accounts and debit-card activity," says Ron Shevlin, a senior analyst with market research firm Aite Group.
Yet consumers shouldn’t jump at such offers without reading the fine print. "These deals sound very attractive, but they come with behavioral restrictions and requirements," says Shevlin. "It’s great that you’ll get $200 upfront, but will you pay $200 in ATM and safety-deposit fees?" Many banks require consumers to set up direct deposit, maintain a minimum account balance or make a certain number of debit-card purchases each month.
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To qualify for the Capital One or Chase promotions, for example, consumers need to set up direct deposit, and Bank of America requires maintaining a minimum balance of $500. Why the restrictions? It gets customers to use their accounts in a way that is most profitable for the bank. Setting up direct deposit is a way of making sure that you stay with the bank longer, and requiring you to use your debit card a certain number of times a month ensures the bank collects revenue from interchange fees. (To encourage debit-card usage, many banks are improving or introducing new debit-card rewards programs.)
What’s more, the offers turn out to be even less generous than they appear once you factor in the bank’s screening criteria. According to First Manhattan Consulting Group, only 20% to 50% of consumers who sign up for such offers actually qualify to receive the cash premium because of criteria.
To be sure, banks have to be careful about who receives such offers because it costs them an average of $200 to $300 to acquire a new account. Typically, they use sophisticated analytics models to determine their target groups, using survey results and data collected by companies like Experian. Having a recent life event like moving, marriage or the birth of a child makes you a prime candidate for a special promotion, as this is the time when people are most likely to consider switching banks, says David Tetenbaum, First Manhattan’s managing vice president. The most generous promotions usually go out to a narrowly targeted population, he adds.
Capital One, for example, targeted its $200 offer to current credit-card holders who live in one of the four states (New York, New Jersey, Texas and Louisiana) where its Rewards Checking account is available, says company spokeswoman Pam Girardo. (She could not share further specifics because they are considered proprietary.)
"It can take two or three years for a customer to become profitable, especially if you're throwing incentives on the front end," says Greg McBride, senior financial analyst at Bankrate.com. So once they’ve got you in the door, chances are the bank will try to pitch you more of its products and services – whether you really need them or not.