610,000 switched banks to protest debit card fees, report says

About 610,000 U.S. bank customers switched to a smaller institution in the last three months of 2011 to protest plans by major banks to impose monthly charges for using debit cards, according to a financial services market-research firm.

That represented 11% of the 5.6 million U.S. people who switched banks during that period — a relatively modest number, Javelin Strategy & Research said in a report Monday.

Javelin said it analyzed the online responses of 5,878 people to gauge the effect of the backlash triggered by Bank of America Corp.'s plan to charge $5 a month to customers who used their debit cards for purchases.

Several other banks already had either imposed debit-card fees or were testing them, and analysts had predicted that the trend would spread to the entire industry. But Bank of America's plan, which leaked out at the end of September, produced an enormous surge of criticism.

Protesters from the Occupy movement, consumer advocates and even President Obama criticized the proposed fee, and an online movement called Bank Transfer Day emerged to encourage people to switch to small banks and credit unions.

Bank of America ultimately called off its plan without imposing the $5 charge, and the rest of the industry followed suit in allowing fee-free use of debit cards.

"This exodus was certainly not the massive departure banks might have feared," Javelin said in reporting its analysis. However, the firm said it was unusual for bank customers to move funds in protest at all, despite widespread dissatisfaction over service, rates and fees at banks.

Javelin, which has surveyed bank customers since 2003, said people generally are "highly resistant to moving their money."

For example, the Huffington Post's Move Your Money project in 2008, similar to Bank Transfer Day, barely registered an effect, Javelin said, adding: "Yet this time, Bank Transfer Day and the Occupy Movement did have a measurable impact."

Of those who switched banks in October, November and December, 26% told Javelin that they switched not as part of the protest movement per se but because banks charged too many fees.


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