Thousands move money to credit unions
By Alex Nixon
Published: Friday, Nov. 4, 2011
Tens of thousands of Americans are closing bank accounts and moving their money to credit unions in a Facebook campaign that has gathered momentum from anti-Wall Street protests.
But in the Pittsburgh market, where the majority of large banks continue to offer free checking accounts, the campaign's affect appears muted.
"There's been a slight increase in membership" in recent weeks, said Kelly Friedl, director of operations for Riverset Credit Union. The South Side credit union has about 14,000 members in Allegheny, Beaver and Butler counties.
The Facebook campaign, which started about a month ago in California, culminates Saturday with Bank Transfer Day. But Riverset and some other credit unions in the region that normally are closed Saturdays won't be open.
Clearview Credit Union, which has 90,000 members in 10 Southwest Pennsylvania counties, is usually open on Saturdays and isn't expecting higher than usual traffic for Bank Transfer Day, said Christianne Gribben, marketing director.
The movement to close accounts at traditional banks took off last month when Bank of America Corp., the second-biggest U.S. bank, said it would add a $5 monthly debit-card fee. Consumer backlash led the bank to drop the plan Tuesday.
Bank of America has no branches in the Pittsburgh market. And five of the six largest banks in the region — which control about 60 percent of the market — offer free checking accounts and have no plans to add fees like Bank of America. JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo also were considering similar fees but backed off their plans.
Elsewhere in the state, bank customers have been moving accounts to credit unions in higher than normal numbers, said Mike Wishnow, senior vice president with the Pennsylvania Credit Union Association, in Harrisburg.
"Credit unions are certainly capitalizing on the anti-bank fee sentiment," Wishnow said. "Many of our credit unions have added extra staff and are opening longer hours on Saturday."
The association recently launched a website, ibelong.org , to help consumers learn more about credit unions and find one near them. And in the last month, Wishnow said, traffic to the site has quadrupled.
Pennsylvania has about 450 credit unions, more than any other state, Wishnow said. Nationally, about 91 million people have credit unions accounts worth almost $1 trillion, according to the National Credit Union Administration, a federal agency that regulates credit unions. About one million people a year open an account with a credit union, it said.
Bill Cheney, head of the industry group Credit Union National Association, which represents America's 7,400 credit unions, said during the past month credit unions saw large demand for new accounts, numbering at least in the "tens of thousands."
Retired Army Maj. Claudia Jefferson, 45, plans to close her account with Bank of America before Saturday.
"I stand with other Americans when I say, we have had enough," Jefferson said, calling higher bank fees an insult after the 2008 bank bailouts. "We are sick and tired."
Bank Transfer Day is happening at the same time as the Occupy Wall Street movement, which began on Sept. 17 when protesters set up camp in a New York park, sparking demonstrations and so-called occupations globally, including in Pittsburgh.
Los Angeles gallery owner Kristen Christian, 27, who started Bank Transfer Day on Facebook, said she was not inspired by the Occupy movement and does not endorse the protests.
Occupy Wall Street protesters are upset that banks received billions of dollars in bailouts in 2008 while average Americans are still suffering in a tough economy.
Citibank was not available for comment on whether it might close branches normally open on Saturday. JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America declined to comment.
A spokesman for Wells Fargo & Co said there are no plans to close branches scheduled to open on Saturday.
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