Ken Rose is a Bank of America customer, but he has also done business for years with Destinations Credit Union in Parkville. Now, with the bank's announcement that it will charge many debit-card users a $5 monthly fee, the Edmondson Village resident says he plans to switch all his banking to the credit union.
"They do everything," Rose, 60, said of Destinations. "Nobody's going to banks anymore."
While that might be an overstatement, local credit unions are seizing on the public's discontent with big banks — Wells Fargo and Chase are also testing debit fees, and Citi recently announced new charges for checking accounts — to step up their marketing efforts and pull in more customers.
"For years, the whole concept of a credit union was shrouded in mystery," said Richard Williams Jr., the president of SecurityPlus Federal Credit Union in Woodlawn. "This really is an opportunity for most of us to … let people know we offer products that are equal to what large banks are offering."
Wooing individuals is key for credit unions, which are not-for-profit cooperative financial institutions that typically charge low fees and offer favorable interest rates: higher for savings, lower for loans.
"Even without banks implementing a number of fees, we're still a better deal than most of the banks out there," said Rod Staatz, president and CEO of SECU Credit Union and vice president of the Maryland and District of Columbia Credit Union Association.
Credit unions have the flexibility to work with members at a personal level, said Williams, who stressed that consumers should take the time to "evaluate their relationships" with their banking institutions.
Both bank and credit union customers should research what their financial institutions charge, said Norma Garcia, manager of the financial services program for Consumers Union.
Of consumers' increased interest in credit unions, she said, "This development seems like it's incentivizing people to do what they ought to do for every product — shop around to get the best deal."
But customers should investigate before they move, she added, saying, "Armed with the right questions, consumers can make the right decision."
Credit union officials say educating the public is a crucial part of their marketing mission.
Every credit union has its own eligibility criteria for membership. For example, most of SecurityPlus' 32,000 members work for the Social Security Administration or the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services. But the credit union's charter allows a broader membership, including anyone who lives, works, attends school or worships in the Baltimore area, Williams said.
While credit unions have few branches and ATMs compared to big banks, many belong to ATM networks that give members increased access and flexibility. Some credit unions, such as Destinations and SecurityPlus, also belong to cooperative networks that allow members to carry out banking errands at multiple branches.
"We're all just sort of overlapping and we're broadening our services to serve more people," said Brian J. Vittek, Destinations' president and CEO.
Just as banks have FDIC insurance, federal credit unions insure deposits up to $250,000 through the National Credit Union Share Insurance Fund. Destinations even offers additional private insurance for deposits up to half a million dollars, Vittek said.
Credit unions also offer a selection of online and mobile banking services. Later this year, SECU plans to let members make "remote deposits" by sending in pictures of checks taken with their smartphones. SecurityPlus expects to have the same capability next year.
"We're beefing up those kinds of things that we think are big-time conveniences for our members," Williams said.
But unlike major banks, credit unions don't have large advertising budgets. SecurityPlus has begun emailing members to let them know the benefits of belonging to a credit union, Williams said. Destinations aired its first cable television ad, in the Parkville area, a few months ago, Vittek said.
Although business has been difficult in recent years, credit unions have worked to keep fees low.