The L.A. Financial Credit Union in downtown Los Angeles offers free debit… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)
LOS ANGELES AND WASHINGTON — 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.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, March 04, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Credit union growth: An article in the March 2 Section A about the growth in U.S. credit union membership in response to rising bank fees said that credit unions hold $96 billion in assets. The correct figure is $960 billion.
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 Assn. 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 into these funds serve as a warning sign to banks, which critics say have long operated as if they had no competition.
"Consumers have made it loud and clear that they are fed up," said Norma Garcia, manager of Consumers Union's financial services team in San Francisco.
Pattie Sullivan, a Rancho Mirage 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% annual interest -- more than any bank is 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.
Though BofA backed away from the debit-card charge, the bank said Thursday that it is continuing to test a new menu of checking accounts that includes higher fees. A spokeswoman said it hasn't been determined when the fees would be rolled out.
Criticism of excessive fees slapped on customer checking, savings and credit accounts has escalated during the last year. It has led the government to announce Thursday another way for Americans to register their gripes about service.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, created in the aftermath of the financial crisis and near-meltdown of the banking industry, is now logging consumer complaints about their accounts. The agency said it expects to field calls on problems related to opening and closing accounts, dealing with low account balances and using debit or ATM cards.
"Deposit accounts play a critical role in the lives of most Americans, but these products and the laws governing them are complicated," said the bureau's director, Richard Cordray. "Consumers need someone on their side to keep banks and credit unions accountable -- that is our job at the consumer bureau."
Last month, the agency launched a broad investigation of overdraft fees charged by banks and started soliciting public input on a new disclosure box about the fees on monthly statements.
The backlash against banks led to a broad overhaul of the financial system, including tough new restrictions designed to protect consumers. That has led banks to report a steep drop in revenue during the last few years.
For instance, new legislation halved fees that merchants pay when their customers make debit-card purchases. That led to a big decline in revenue in the industry and caused major banks like JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Wells Fargo & Co. to raise fees on checking accounts to help recoup anticipated losses.
Consumer advocates and bank consultants had expected even more fees to be levied on consumers. But those efforts appear to have subsided after the widespread public lashing suffered by Bank of America.
JPMorgan Chase consumer chief Todd Maclin said at an investor conference Tuesday that big banks lose money on most customers with less than $100,000 in deposits and investments. But he said it would be extremely difficult for banks to compensate by imposing new fees given the current hostile environment.
Unlike BofA, JPMorgan Chase is no longer testing new checking fees, a spokesman said. But industry analysts point out that banks must charge for their services -- it's just a question of how, and how much.
"Big banks need to pick their poison," said banking attorney Jeremy T. Rosenblum, a consumer finance expert at Ballard Spahr in Philadelphia.
"They can passively accept government-mandated revenue losses, or they can charge new fees and risk offending consumers and, worse, bureaucrats who have been given enormous power over them. I think that, sooner or later -- perhaps in many cases after the elections -- banks are going to have to take the political risk."