If you’re trying to cut back on credit card debt or other types of consumer debt, the fees banks charge can make a big difference. Unfortunately, it’s often very difficult to find out in advance what fees banks could charge you on credit cards, debit cards, car loans, mortgages and other lines of credit.

That was supposed to change with the passage of the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009, also known as the CARD Act, which was meant to strengthen the 1991 Truth in Savings Act by requiring banks to spell out their fees in advance.

Unfortunately, a new study by the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) found that one in four banks are still making it difficult or impossible for consumers to get up-front fee disclosures — and lack of enforcement by the Federal Trade Commission is making the problem worse.

“Avoiding higher bank fees by shopping for a bank account is not easy,” reads the report. “The lack of enforcement has even extended to the laws requiring simple disclosures, so consumers cannot shop around.”

Only 55 percent of banks produced the fee schedules, even when pressed

The big banks were strongly opposed to a number of provisions in the CARD Act, saying that they would deprive banks of the immense profits they derive from fees on credit card debt, late payments and consumer mistakes. As a result of the law, some types of consumer credit are indeed getting more expensive, making up-front fee disclosures more important than ever.

In its study, PIRG sent “secret shoppers” to 392 banks and credit unions in 21 states. They also reviewed online fee schedules at banks over the past six months.

The secret shoppers found that only 38 percent of banks produced fee schedules after the first request, and only 55 percent produced the required information after three requests. Even then, about a quarter of the banks provided inaccurate information. Another 23 percent never provided the required fee information at all.

The PIRG staffers also found that obtaining the fee schedules was virtually never easy. Fee brochures were not included in the brochure racks at bank branches, and tellers often couldn’t produce them, either. The staffers typically got the run-around — being referred to sales representatives who aggressively tried to sign them up for accounts, being directed to seek the information online, or being told they had to open an account before they could see the fee schedule, which violates the law.

“Many banks had no information. Some banks had incomplete information,” the report said. “Other banks said, ‘see fee schedule,’ but had no links to one. Other web pages urged consumers to ‘visit a branch’ for details.”

The report also found that local community banks and credit unions were more likely than national banks to provide the fee schedules.

Source: The Red Tape Chronicles blog, MSNBC.com, “Study – Banks hide fee info, skirt law,” Bob Sullivan, April 12, 2011