09/09/2009 12:50 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

"Banksters" On Parade

That was quite a sight Tuesday: the Treasury Secretary and Federal Reserve Chairman, lined up in front of the Senate Banking Committee, begging for an immediate $700 billion to bail out America's shaky financial system.

John McCain thinks this represents "strong fundamentals," and his economic adviser Phil Gramm calls us a "nation of whiners."

Ah, but have you experienced the latest scam against the little guy?

I was attempting a $200 withdrawal at my bank's ATM the other night, from a non-overdraft protected and rarely used account. In the past, if you asked for more money than was available, an ATM simply refused. Its message would be something like "amount exceeds available funds." Not any longer.

It turns out the balance on this particular account had dipped below the $200 I'd requested. In spite of this, my friendly ATM informed me that I was welcome to complete the transaction, subject to a later, unspecified overdraft fee. What?

Although impressed by the apparent act of kindness, I opted for a lesser amount when it hit me that this is a big deal.

My bank was pleasantly inviting me to exceed the balance -- in effect to write a hot check -- so it could then collect what I learned the next day would be an additional $30.

Small wonder the economy is teetering. An overdraft fee was historically the bank's way of punishing you for mismanaging your finances and slipping into arrears. Today, remarkably, it's offered by the bank as a means of facilitating the mismanagement!

This is a sea change in how banks conduct business, and it should be illegal. At the least, it's unethical to encourage feckless behavior. Yet they're now promoting this philosophy, dangling it for fun -- and profit -- at ATM's coast-to-coast.

They've become enablers, and it isn't fair to say "Well, they told Joe Blow he's going over his limit, it's his own fault." These institutions have a responsibility, too.

No doubt they'd claim, with a straight face, that this policy is meant to help those who need cash right now. Sorry, that's what pawn shops and in-laws are for. No, it's all about luring the customer into criminally high fees, which makes a bank no better than a pawn shop.

Millions make withdrawals at ATM's every day, and the vast majority are not accessing six-figure accounts. Thus, banks are treating average people with contempt. Single mothers needing baby sitter money or diapers, for example. Starving college students. Families trying to get by in hard times.

Such a hustle wasn't possible when ATM's said no, but in the new world order the touch screen delivers the come-on of a con artist: "Psst, it's OK, worry about it tomorrow, you know you want it."

Plenty of folks will take this bait, and banksters know it. They're playing those who live paycheck to paycheck as chumps. In this case, they're actually supplying the shovel that digs these unfortunate souls deeper into a hole. It's unconscionable, frankly.

It's also destined to be a huge revenue generator, worth billions of dollars annually. Perhaps this is how Bank of America intends to pay for its recent $50 billion acquisition of Merrill Lynch. On the backs of the poor.

Speaking of enablers, by the way, there ought to be a law. What happened to things like usuary caps, and regulations to rein in these malefactors of great wealth? Fairness and integrity must be the core of our capitalist system, and politicians must insist on it.

After members of Congress have finished debate on the $700 billion from taxpayers to Wall Street, they need to tackle abuses aimed at those who live and work on Main Street.

We're those same taxpayers.