Destinations, a state-chartered credit union, has served a "very credit-challenged field of members," Vittek said.

"Understanding their struggles, the last thing we want to do is impose more fines or more fees for no reason other than to make more money," he said. " 'Fees' [is] almost like a bad word."

Destinations does not charge fees unless a customer has an insufficient balance or another problem that results in a charge to the credit union, and it has not increased fees in more than five years, Vittek said.

Bank of America spokeswoman Betty Riess said the bank sought to be "clear and transparent" as the debit-card fees are rolled out in early 2012. Debit cards will be free for customers with premium accounts — balances of $20,000 in multiple linked accounts, or investments through Merrill Lynch or a mortgage.

All customers can withdraw cash at the bank's ATMs for free, as well as use online banking and person-to-person transfers, Riess said. Customers can also get an ATM-only card to avoid debit fees.

Garcia of Consumers Union said that bank customers need to understand the fees that institutions charge and find out if they can take steps to avoid them by, for example, maintaining a high balance or using direct deposit.

The outlook for Destinations Credit Union membership appears to be bright: Usually, Destinations gains only about 50 new members a month, but in September 70 people joined, said Carol Szaroleta, the credit union's marketing manager.

Rose, a retired Maryland Transit Administration bus driver, is one of the union's happy customers. "You go to banks, they treat you like a criminal." But at the credit union, he said, "they treat you so good."

Credit unions vs. banks

• Bank deposits are federally insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, while credit unions are insured through the National Credit Union Share Insurance Fund. Both banks and credit unions insure deposits up to $250,000.

• A paid board of directors makes all of the decisions for banks, while credit unions are controlled by their members, who elect their own board of directors.

• People who patronize banks are customers, while those who use credit unions for their financial services are called members.

• Banks are for-profit institutions, while credit unions are not-for-profit organizations. That means any profits incurred directly benefit members after overhead costs are covered.

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