Checking fees, other charges caused credit unions to gain double the normal number of customers. Mulling more hikes in checking fees, big banks could lose more customers, advocates say.
Consumers fed up with the rising tide of bank fees helped the nation's credit unions more than double their number of new customers last year, new figures show.
More than 1.3 million Americans opened new credit union accounts last year, up from less than 600,000 in 2010, the National Credit Union Administration reported. That brings the number of credit union members to a record 91.8 million.
Activists say those numbers might swell even further if major banks try to squeeze more fees out of their customers.
"We're going to be playing bank fee Whack-a-Mole for the foreseeable future," Fred R. Becker, chief executive of the National Association of Federal Credit Unions, said Thursday. Ultimately, he added, "people are going to switch" to credit unions.
Credit unions were given a boost last year as major banks became targets of the Occupy Wall Street movement. It didn't help when Bank of America began plans to impose a $5 fee for debit cards, triggering howls of protest from consumers, Congress and even the White House.
Seizing the moment, consumer groups organized November's "Bank Transfer Day," which encouraged people to switch their accounts from for-profit banks to nonprofit credit unions and smaller local banks.
The $96 billion in credit union accounts is dwarfed by the $12.6 trillion floating in the nation's banking system. But the shift of these funds serves as a warning sign to banks, which critics say have long operated as if they had no competition.
Pattie Sullivan, a Rancho Mirage, Calif., retiree living on Social Security, said her bank surprised her in January by raising the annual maintenance fees for her two small retirement accounts from $15 for both to $30 each, or $60.
Sullivan said she wants to move her money but can't afford to do that with the larger account, for $78,000, because it's tied up in a five-year certificate of deposit at 3.35 percent annual interest _ more than any bankis currently paying. She's thinking of picketing her bank.
"I'm on the brink of going to Home Depot, getting material and making a sign for when I go up there," she said.