Florida Today - Bank of America's proposed $5 monthly debit-card fee is gone, but it is hardly forgotten.
In the history of consumer outrages, it has likely secured an ignominious place beside the 1985 introduction of New Coke and the recent price increase and aborted business split at Netflix.
Credit unions and community banks in Brevard report they've welcomed hundreds of new customers who have cut ties with the big banks, many of which took the taxpayer bailout money to cover losses and then raised, or attempted to raise, various fees to recoup revenue sacrificed to new restrictions on transaction and overdraft fees.
With the Occupy Wall Street movement still roiling the citizenry, Bank Transfer Day - built via social networks - last week signaled that Americans were fed up. It marked a tipping point at which Americans stopped complaining about banks and began acting. Protest petitions were accompanied by a march of funds out of big banks that made Wells Fargo, Bank of America and other banks back off proposed fees.
"Enough is enough."
That's how James Milucky, a Malabar CPA, put it. He started moving his money even before Bank Transfer Day last Saturday. "We have migrated towards non-fee-charging institutions. Someone's figured out how to do it."
Milucky's money is now in credit unions and banks that charge fewer fees.
And so banks' standing in the eyes of many consumers, already fairly low, tumbled lower.
"I don't know if Americans have ever really liked the banking industry," said Florida Tech professor Bob Taylor, head of the Department of Humanities and Communications.
Taylor cites a history of animosity, beginning with The Bank War in the 1830s, when President Andrew Jackson took the government's money out of a private bank. Banks closed during the Great Depression, after losing lots of people's money.
And everyone remembers the 1946 movie, "It's a Wonderful Life," in which Jimmy Stewart ran a humble savings and loan in contrast to the evil banker at the big bank.
In its retreat, Bank of America said it listened to consumers and recognized their concerns over the debit fee. That institutions and others that abandoned their debit-fee plans in the days before Bank of America did feared hemorrhaging even more customers.
It was too late for them to keep Milucky.
"I'm just like every other consumer and voted with my dollar," he said. "I took my personal account elsewhere. Action is what makes the difference."
Moving the money
One slogan sums up the tipping point of nearly every American revolt: "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore."
Representing that angry sentiment, uttered in the 1976 movie "Network," Kristen Christian, 27, a Los Angeles art gallery owner, sparked a protest against Bank of America in October. After the bank announced its debit-card fee, Christian founded an online movement that expanded beyond the virtual world. More than 80,000 responded to her "National Bank Transfer Day" Facebook event page and promised they would leave their banks by Nov. 5.
Around the same time, part-time nanny Molly Katchpole, 22, in Washington, D.C., started an online petition opposing the debit-card fee and attracted more than 300,000 signatures when she put the petition on the website Change.org.
These actions show one of the biggest impacts social media has had on a grassroots protest movement: near-instant mobilization. Witness how the Occupy movements organized nearly at once in many cities, and compare that to the slow-building protests that came during the anti-Vietnam War movement.
Twitter and Facebook allow popular sentiments to be disbursed in a flash and among thousands of people, which helps movements coalesce quickly.
Though the movements may start in the virtual world, their impact is anything but.
Nationwide, more than 650,000 bank customers have transferred to a credit union in the six weeks since the Bank Transfer Day initiative was announced. Some 40,000 accounts were moved Nov. 5 itself, according to theCredit Union Times. In Brevard County, credit unions and community banks have signed up hundreds of new customers.
"We've seen an uptick since September," Sara Stern, vice president of marketing at the 34,000-member Community Credit Union in Brevard, said..
New accounts from big banks have grown by 100 a month, a 25-percent increase from the average inflow, since the transfer campaign was announced. And new customers are transferring their loans along with their accounts.
Space Coast Credit Union also has seen a boom in members. Neither it nor Community launched advertising to lure dissatisfied customers.
"We've brought new members on at about twice the typical rate," said Meredith Gibson, senior vice president of marketing at Space Coast Credit Union.
Gibson expects growth to continue because banks have increased other fees.
"The debit fee was so upsetting that it made them start looking," she said. "Once you set that in motion, people will keep looking."
Community banks have also felt the benefit of Bank Transfer Day.
"We're seeing a migration from the larger institutions over to us," said Ben Malik, vice president and area relationship manager for Florida Bank of Commerce, which has two branches in Brevard. "We're probably 25 percent ahead of last year (in new customers), most of it a migration from commercial institutions."
Politics and money
People involved in the bank protest, the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movements have one thing in common.
"The one thing they agree on is that they are very frustrated," said Stanley Smith, a finance professor at the University of Central Florida.
He's not surprised at the exodus from big banks and lists transgressions that include risky subprime loans, the taxpayer bailout, improper foreclosures and mishandling pension funds and investments.
The anger that erupted over the debit fees could continue as a flood of customers to smaller banks and credit unions. And as the 2012 election approaches, all these citizen movements, whatever their political bent, likely will be ready to take more action.
"All this is really stirring up people, and hopefully people will vote," Smith said. "Right now, they're voting with their money."