Anger at big banks sends customers to credit unions
Published: Thursday, November 3, 2011 at 7:51 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, November 3, 2011 at 7:51 p.m.
Hundreds of Sonoma County residents are joining local credit unions and community banks as part of a widespread movement urging Americans to pull their money out of the nation's biggest banks.
The nonprofit credit unions and at least one local bank will have extra staff on hand Saturday for Bank Transfer Day, an Internet-fueled protest that exhorts consumers to move their savings and checking accounts to local credit unions.
The grassroots movement gained traction after Bank of America's announcement — since rescinded — to charge a $5 monthly fee to debit card users. Participants in various Occupy protests around the country have simultaneously urged Americans to move their money from large banks to nonprofit credit unions.
An estimated 650,000 consumers have joined credit unions across the country since Sept. 29, the day of the BofA announcement, according to the Credit Union National Association, an industry trade group.
In just the last five weeks, new and existing members have shifted $4.5 billion into credit unions, the group said Thursday. The massive transfer of capital and rising tide of consumer anger has rattled the U.S. banking industry, prompting Bank of America, Wells Fargo and other banks to scrap the new debit card fees.
Redwood Credit Union, Sonoma County's second-largest financial institution with nearly $2 billion in assets, reports that the number of new members joining in October was double the count from a year earlier.
And nearly 600 of those new members said the BofA debit card fee “was the final breaking point,” said Brett Martinez, the credit union's president and CEO.
Santa Rosa's Community First Credit Union, which has $122 million in assets, reported 219 new members joined the institution last month, a 72 percent jump over a year earlier.
“We've never had a month that's come close to this,” said David Williams, a Community First vice president.
Among those visiting the credit union Thursday was retired engineer Mike Rogalski, 67, of Santa Rosa. Rogalski said he plans to begin shifting his funds slowly to the credit union from his bank, which he didn't want to name because he remains a customer there.
Despite the pullback on fees by BofA, the banks still plan to recoup debit card revenues and “they're going to do what it takes to reach their income target,” he said. “It's going to come out of us.”
Bank Transfer Day is credited to 27-year-old Los Angeles gallery owner Kristen Christian, who told an NBC Los Angeles news station that she was shocked when BofA, her bank, announced the debit card fee.
“If we shift our funds from the for-profit banking institutions in favor of not-for-profit credit unions before this date, we will send a clear message that conscious consumers won't support companies with unethical business practices,” Christian wrote on the Transfer Day Facebook site. “It's time to invest in local community growth!”
As well, Occupy leaders have reached out to credit unions and passed out information about the nonprofit institutions, said Henry Kertman, a vice president with the California and Nevada Credit Union Leagues. Such information has been handed out at the Occupy Santa Rosa gathering at City Hall.
“It just seems that consumer frustration with banks has reached the tipping point,” Kertman said. The new attention is providing his members a chance to show consumers “what a wonderful alternative credit unions are for members.”
But Beth Mills, a spokeswoman for the California Bankers Association, said banks often can “beat the credit unions hands down” when comparing fees, branch and ATM locations and other services.
People shouldn't move their money simply because “it's the politically popular thing to do right now,” Mills said.
Both groups urged consumers to educate themselves on the different services offered and fees charged by banks and credit unions.
Some of the credit union officials also cautioned consumers to consider moving slowly and not trying to close bank accounts and to open new credit union accounts all on Saturday.
“If you're fed up, do something about it,” said Martinez of Redwood Credit. “Just don't do something on Nov. 5.”
Santa Rosa's Exchange Bank also has seen an increase in new accounts, said senior vice president Brad Hunter. The bank likely will have more staff at its branches Saturday.
Exchange Bank, Redwood Credit Union and Community First Credit Union have all sought to emphasize their local ties, joining the Bank Local campaign that is part of a larger initiative to support local businesses.
Community First has aggressively marketed Bank Transfer Day, adopting the icon from the Facebook protest in a full-page newspaper ad Thursday.
“Money is power. By taking some of the money out of the Wall Street banks, you diminish some of their power to pervert tax laws,” the credit union said in its ad.
One customer switching accounts from Wells Fargo to Redwood Credit Union on Thursday was Matthew Zurich, a 25-year-old Santa Rosa Junior College student. He said he has been thinking about the change for a few months because he believes the credit union will do a better job of helping him establish a history of good credit.
But he said he also supports the Bank Transfer Day movement.
“I'm happy to do this at a time when it might mean a little more,” he said.
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