Communities are being stripped of their free access to cash at an “alarming” rate, with more than 1,000 ATMs having been converted to charge fees in March alone, according to Which?
The consumer group said fees of at least 95p per withdrawal were imposed on nearly 1,700 machines between January and March this year.
It used figures from ATM network Link to make the findings.
Which? said the rate of machines being converted to charge fees appears to be on the increase, with a “staggering” 1,250 conversions thought to have taken place across the UK in March.
Which? said the bulk of the ATMs affected are operated by Cardtronics, the UK’s biggest cashpoint operator.
Bank branch and ATM closures have sparked widespread concerns about people’s future access to cash.
A row broke out last year over Link’s proposals for reducing interchange fees – the fee card issuers pay ATM operators – leading to concerns more free-to-use cash machines will disappear.
Link has put in place specific arrangements to protect free-to-use ATMs more than one kilometre away from their next nearest free-to-use ATM.
A spokeswoman for Cardtronics said: “We have been forced into charging a fee for cash withdrawals on some of our machines where Link’s cuts have left us with no choice.
“The decision on whether to introduce a fee is taken on a case-by-case basis and reflects the economic viability of the individual machine.
“We only ever charge a fee when there is no other option apart from removing the machine altogether.”
Meanwhile, Peter McNamara, chief executive of cashpoint provider NoteMachine, said: “The whole Link system is now under severe threat from a toxic combination of wholesale bank branch closures, the unavoidable shift of many free-to-use machines to a charging model, and the mothballing of low volume machines which are no longer economically viable under the charging regime.”
He said NoteMachine has always operated a free-to-use model wherever possible and continued: “However, unless urgent action is taken to reduce the pressure on ATM operators by reversing the interchange fee reductions, NoteMachine will be forced to begin converting ATMs to surcharging.
“This is a dilemma we have been grappling with for some time and are extremely reluctant to make such a decision.”
A recent Access to Cash Review chaired by former chief of the Financial Ombudsman Service Natalie Ceeney described the cash system as “on the verge of collapse”.
Which? said that while digital payments are on the rise in the UK, 2.2 million people are almost entirely reliant on cash in their daily lives.
It warned that the UK risks drifting into a “no-cash” society which could shut people out of paying for local goods and services.
The consumer champion is urging the Government to appoint a regulator to ensure no-one is denied the ability to access cash.
Gareth Shaw, head of money at Which?, said: “Communities are being stripped of free access to cash at an alarming rate that could hit the most vulnerable in our society the hardest, while denying millions of people free withdrawals.
“A regulator is desperately needed to get a grip of these rapid changes across the cash landscape and ensure all those still reliant on this important payment method aren’t suddenly shut out from accessing the cash they need in their daily lives.”
John Howells, chief executive of Link, said: “Free access to cash is vital for consumers and the UK enjoys extensive coverage that Link is committed to protecting.
“There are more than 50,000 free-to-use ATMs across the UK, 10,000 more than we had in 2009, and currently 12,700 pay-to-use cash machines, down from over 23,000 in 2009.
“Less than 3% of withdrawals at Link ATMs incur a fee.
“For now, there is no need for consumers to be concerned and if they wish to find their most convenient free ATM they can download the Link app for free or access cash over the counter at over 11,500 Post Offices across the UK.
“However, we agree with Which? that regulatory support is needed as there is a risk to cash access in the long run.”
Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) national chairman Mike Cherry said: “Charging shoppers to withdraw their own money is wrong and dampens consumer appetite, causing a drag on local growth in the process.”
A spokesman for the Payment Systems Regulator (PSR) said: “In October 2018, we gave Link a direction to make sure it does all it can to meet its commitments to protecting the broad geographic spread of free-to-use ATMs.
“We are aware that some ATMs have changed from free-to-use ATMs to pay-to-use.
“We are looking into this and if it impacts on the commitment Link has made to us to protect the broad geographic spread of free-to-use ATMs we will take action.”