Credit unions pounce after banks raise fees

October 30, 2011

At Lafayette Federal Credit Union in Kensington, officials wasted no time in taking aim at Bank of America’s decision to levy fees on debit cards. Within two weeks of the megabank’s Sept. 29 decree, the credit union placed ads in area newspapers telling consumers:

“There’s no reason to pay your bank, when we’re here to pay you, with: no-fee checking and debit card, no minimum balance requirements . . . dividends paid quarterly.”

If the list of incentives didn’t do the trick, the bank added a scowling twentysomething cutting up a debit card, below the looming question: “$#%&’n mad? You should be!”

The provocative campaign seemed to strike a chord with consumers as Lafayette FCU has recorded a 50 percent increase in online applications this month, according to marketing director Christina Madaras.

Lafayette FCU, like many credit unions in the Washington area, is capi­tal­izing on the growing anti-bank sentiment that’s sweeping the country.

Officials at Bank of America declined to comment for this article. The bank may have garnered the most attention, but it is not the only institution using fee hikes to offset declines in revenue. SunTrust has also added fees on debit cards, while Citi­bank has phased out its free checking accounts.

Credit unions have the upper hand now because they and community banks with less than $10 billion in assets are exempt from a new government regulation that cut interchange or “swipe” fees, rules that banks say triggered the wave of new fees.

Still, credit unions are not without their own limitations. Lafayette’s Madaras still finds herself explaining to people that, unlike a bank, a credit union is a cooperative, where customers are members. That means profits made on loan interest income and fees are returned to members as higher savings and lower loan rates. It also means that the institutions are often smaller than banks and lack extensive networks of ATMs and branches.

In the past month, the National Association of Federal Credit Unions recorded a 350 percent increase in Web traffic to its online credit union locator, CUlookup.com. The portal matches visitors with institutions they might be eligible to join based on affiliations, such as school, employer or church.

“There is a growing awareness of credit unions because of consumer anger at the big banks,” said Karen Tyson, senior vice president of marketing and communications at the trade group.

Analysts say there is no guarantee that credit unions will hold the line on fees, especially if the economy continues to sour. What’s more, the institutions have their own regulations to contend with. For instance, the industry has been pleading with Congress to raise the cap on its ability to lend to small businesses.

For now, though, credit unions sense an opportunity.

A Facebook group has designated Nov. 5 “Bank Transfer Day,” calling on customers to move their money into credit unions to avoid soaring fees. The event has gained momentum in the blogosphere and spilled into the mainstream media, drawing attention to an often-ignored sector of the financial industry.

Marc Wilensky, vice president of marketing at Mid-Atlantic Federal Credit Union, said applications to join the Germantown-based credit union shot up 59 percent, to 262, this month, compared with a year ago.

Mid-Atlantic revved up its print advertising (new slogan: “Charge you $5 to use your debit card? Never have. Never will!”) and added two more outreach events to its roster in the wake of the Bank of America announcement.

“Bank of America drove more members into our branches than I ever could,” he said.

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