Family Finance: Fee-wary customers switch banks

EILEEN AJ CONNELLY AP Personal Finance Writer Published:

Eds: With Family Finance-Switching Banks-Tips. With AP Photos.

NEW YORK (AP) -- Cory and Stephanie Heck are in the midst of doing what countless other Bank of America customers have threatened. In response to the bank's plan to charge $5 per month for using debit cards, they're switching banks.

"We work too hard to have to pay to access our money," said Cory Heck, 31, a Bank of America customer for about four years.

"For me, it's a customer service issue," said Stephanie, also 31, a human resources manager. "As a customer, they haven't treated us the way I would expect to be treated."

The Hecks are far from alone. A growing number of big bank customers, angry about new debit card usage fees, harder-to-avoid checking accounts fees and rising ATM surcharges, are taking their frustrations and their business elsewhere.

"They're coming over in big chunks," said David Glaser, vice president of National Capital Bank, a family run, two-branch community bank in Washington D.C. He estimated that 80 percent of the new accounts opened in the three weeks since news broke about the $5 debit card fees have been opened by customers of the Charlotte, N.C.-based Bank of America Corp.

And not all of those switching would even get charged the debit fee. "I had a woman bring me a quarter of a million dollars, Glaser said. "She would not have paid the $5 fee, she just didn't like the idea."

There's even a campaign, dubbed "Bank Transfer Day" that has more than 11,500 people pledging on Facebook to switch financial institutions by Nov. 5. Most say they are headed to credit unions.

That's the choice made by the Hecks. After they searched for options in their hometown of Royal Oak, Mich., they decided to become members of Genesys Credit Union.

Most credit unions are small, nonprofit membership organizations, that don't charge any fees or have low fees for their basic accounts. The Bethpage Federal Credit Union of Long Island, N.Y., is even offering a certificate with a lifetime "no fee guarantee" to its customers.

Bethpage President and CEO Kirk Kordeleski said it has opened more than 1,500 new accounts in the two weeks after the Bank of America debit fee was announced, greater than twice the normal pace. "People are literally walking into branches and cutting up their Bank of America cards."

Offering the no-fee guarantee was easy, said Kordeleski, because the credit union has always offered free checking. "Credit unions owned the free checking business in the 80s and 90s, because banks typically had a monthly fee at that time," he said.

Debit cards and overdraft fees played a big roll in changing the landscape. Banks were able to regain their earnings from monthly checking fees with steady fee income paid by the retailers for debit card transactions. And they changed policies to ratchet up overdraft fees as well.

Now that regulations are limiting overdraft charges and capping debit card transaction fees, banks are turning back to customers to cover the cost of maintaining their accounts. The availability of free checking accounts declined in 2010 for the first time since 2003, according to a recent report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.

It's not the first time a popular movement has encouraged consumers to dump big banks. During the 2009 holiday season, The Huffington Post got behind the "Move Your Money" project, which used the image of the good-guy community banker played by Jimmy Stewart in the movie "It's a Wonderful Life," to encourage customers of the banking world's "Mr. Potters" to find alternatives.

That campaign got some traction, but didn't result in a significant number of defections.

"'Move Your Money' was good for credit unions, there's no question. But this seems to be a more visceral reaction this time," " said Bill Cheney, CEO of the Credit Union National Association, an industry group. "People aren't just doing it because they like credit unions, they're doing it because they're mad at their bank."

But are people angry enough to make the effort to switch accounts? Consider that they'd be leaving big banks offering wide ATM networks, mobile banking apps and other conveniences that smaller institutions may have trouble matching.

"Consumers are saying they're mad as hell," said Mark Schwanhausser, a financial services analyst with Javelin Strategy & Research. "The question in my mind is, whether they're at that stage of saying 'And I'm not going to take it anymore.'"

The fact is that switching banks can be a hassle. It takes time and effort to find new banks and compare their fees. And while it's easy enough to open an account online, switching often ends up requiring a visit to a branch. Then there's the need to shift direct deposits, electronic bill payments, automatic transfers and the rest of the details associated with modern banking.

"There's a lot more anger than there is action," Schwanhausser said.

His research has shown the more reliant customers are on online banking or mobile banking, the less likely they are to make the switch, even after they open a new account elsewhere.

Some banks and credit unions offer switch kits, that can help a customer through the process. A handful have even contracted a new service called "SwitchAgent" that does most of the work of switching preauthorized bill payments and direct deposits for the individual. But even that helping hand requires the customer to gather account numbers and other details to get it in motion.

"You can complain or you can change," Schwanhausser said, who called this a "Netflix" moment for the big banks. "The consumer is going to be forced to decide how important is convenience? How important is undoing this relationship I have?"

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