NEW YORK (AP) -- Many Americans know that the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. protects their accounts at banks and savings institutions for up to $100,000.
Yet in the 15 banks that failed since 1999, some $114 million in deposits were uninsured because account balances were over the limit or didn't qualify for technical reasons. Savers in these cases -- many of them elderly -- suddenly faced the loss of some, if not all, of the uninsured money.
Since the collapse of Superior Bank in Illinois last year, with nearly $67 million in uninsured deposits, the FDIC has launched a campaign to educate savers about the limits of federal insurance protection.
Government regulators and U.S. congressmen, meanwhile, are debating whether the 20-year-old insurance limit should be raised, especially on Americans' increasingly hefty retirement accounts.
''People who set aside relatively modest amounts every year for retirement can easily amass more than $100,000,'' said Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., who has introduced legislation to index the insurance cap for inflation. He argues that higher insurance on retirement accounts is especially needed as the volatile stock market has driven seniors and other conservative investors to seek the safety of insured banks.
Kathy Nagle, chief of the FDIC's deposit insurance outreach program, points out that ''bank failures are rare, and generally the majority of customers are fully protected.''
Problems arise mainly ''because people don't think their bank is ever going to fail so they keep more than the limit in the bank,'' she said.
She also said that sometimes depositors are the victim of bad timing -- they put the proceeds from the sale of a home, an inheritance or a pension payout at a bank just before it collapses.
Basically, an individual's savings account is insured for up to $100,000, and a joint account for up to $200,000. In addition, each saver can have up to $100,000 in an Individual Retirement Account or a Keogh account and get full coverage on that, too.
Some savers mistakenly believe that they're safe if they set up multiple accounts at a bank or spread their accounts among different branches of the same bank. They're not. A saver with deposits at or near the limit needs to consider shifting money to another institution.
Coverage gets trickier with trust accounts, said Martin Becker, a senior specialist with the FDIC's insurance division. There's some guidance about coverage for these accounts on the FDIC Web site at www.fdic.gov, or a saver can consult the attorney who drew up the trust.
But, Becker added: ''The No. 1 thing to remember is that it's the responsibility of each depositor to make sure they're fully insured.''
That's no consolation for Margaret Sedlacek, 63, an office manager from North Riverside, Ill., who is waiting to hear if and when she's going to be able to recover all her money from what's left of Superior Bank.
Several years ago, Mrs. Sedlacek got a $136,000 lump-sum distribution from her company pension program, which she rolled into an IRA at Superior.
''I knew about the insurance limit, and I questioned putting it all into one account,'' she said. ''But the bank people checked and said, since you're got two beneficiaries on it -- my husband and my daughter -- it's just fine.''
But she found when Superior failed that it wasn't.
Her IRA plus another small retirement account were worth $151,000, she said. She got $100,000 quickly from the FDIC, but won't know for weeks -- if not months -- about the rest.
''That's a lot of money for us,'' said Mrs. Sedlacek, whose husband James already is retired. ''It will make a big difference for our retirement.''
At this point, she said, ''I'd never think of putting more than $100,000 in any account again.''
At the same time, she added, ''The government has to get realistic. They can't encourage people to save for their retirement and not give them protection.''
The FDIC has several tools to help savers learn more about deposit insurance.
A recently published ''Special Report: Are You Sure You're Fully Insured?'' has been posted on the FDIC Web site. The site also is home to EDIE, the Electronic Deposit Insurance Estimator, which can be used to determine coverage on different accounts.
Copies of the report also can be obtained by writing the Federal Consumer Information Center, Dept. 579J, Pueblo, Colo. 81009 or by calling 1-888-878-3256.
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