650,000 Americans Switched to Credit Unions Last Month

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According to a survey conducted by the trade association that represents credit unions, fed-up customers of big banks aren’t waiting until this Saturday’s “Bank Transfer Day” to cash out and take their banking business somewhere else. The Credit Union National Association says an estimated 650,000 Americans have opened new accounts at credit unions since Sept. 29, the day Bank of America announced its wildly unpopular debit card fee. By way of comparison, credit unions only had 600,000 new customers open accounts in all of 2010.

This is one of the clearest signs yet of how strongly bank customers feel about the proliferation of fees large institutions have started attaching to checking accounts. CUNA says that in addition to the 650,000 new customers, an aggregate $4.5 billion has been added to credit union savings accounts in that same time frame. More than 80% of the 5,000 member organizations surveyed said they’ve added members since the end of September.

(MORE: Banks Back Off Unpopular Debit Card Fees)

CUNA president and CEO Bill Cheney said in a statement that this increase is most pronounced at the nation’s largest credit unions, although institutions of all sizes are increasing advertising and marketing campaigns to try and take advantage of the strong anti-bank sentiment sweeping the nation. Many are extending their hours or adding staff in preparation for this Saturday’s “Bank Transfer Day.”

It remains to be seen if customers will keep defecting from the “too big to fail” banks. Bank of America killed its much-derided debit fee earlier this week, and Wells Fargo and Chase both announced they were scrapping tests of debit fees. Will that be enough to stop the wave of disgruntled customers pulling up stakes and leaving their banks? Even though the debit fees are gone, there are plenty of other reasons consumers might want to leave big banks, not the least of which is the prospect that those fees could pop up somewhere else in the future — and it might not be as transparent as a $5 charge for using your debit card, says one analyst.

(MORE: Still Reason to Drop Big Banks, Even After They Drop Debit Card Fees)

“My guess is we’re going to see more stealth-like fees,” says Dennis Moroney, research director for bank cards at TowerGroup, a financial services consulting firm. “It could be stuff that consumers may not notice, or something small that they don’t react to.” In other words, while a $60 annual fee to use a debit card was enough to prompt an outcry, if banks charge a buck or two for paper statements, customers might not object — or even notice.