A group of automated-teller machine operators sued Visa Inc. and MasterCard Inc., the country's largest payment networks, accusing them of fixing ATM access fees.
The lawsuit sheds light on how the banking system collects fees from consumers. In the last month, consumers have been demonstrating their outrage at new debit-card fees, among other new charges levied by banks this year.
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., alleges that the Visa and MasterCard violated antitrust laws by forcing independent machine operators to accept anti-competitive contract terms.
To participate in the Visa and MasterCard networks, independent ATM operators such as Just ATMs Inc. of San Ramon, Calif., were prohibited from charging debit-card customers lower fees when payments were routed through smaller competing payment networks, the complaint alleges.
Instead, operators who could also use cheaper networks, such as Star from First Data Corp. and Pulse from Discover Financial Services, had to charge customers the same access fees across the board, according to the suit.
MasterCard and Visa declined to comment.
The price-fixing suit was filed Wednesday by several operators and the National ATM Council, a nonprofit trade group founded last month in Jacksonville, Fla.
The plaintiffs alleged that Visa and MasterCard artificially raised the cost for consumers and limited revenue for operators of about 200,000 ATMs at gasoline stations and convenience stores. The suit seeks class-action status and "tens of millions of dollars" in damages.
Visa, MasterCard and other debit transaction processors have grappled recently with changing rules and other controversies.
The Federal Reserve this month began capping the fees that banks can charge merchants for customers' debit card transactions, cutting the maximum nearly in half.
To compensate, banks have been raising fees elsewhere. Customers lashed out at Bank of America Corp. last month after it revealed plans to charge customers $5 every month they used their debit cards for purchases. JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Wells Fargo & Co. are testing $3 monthly fees.
On Thursday, a group of Democratic lawmakers led by Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) asked U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. to launch an investigation into whether major banks colluded on the new monthly fees.