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The poor economy is cutting into consumer spending but driving up dealmaking in the surcharge-free automated teller machine market; several networks have seized the opportunity to paint themselves as coming to the rescue of financially stressed people.

These networks say enrollment by community banks and credit unions is up, and the financial companies say joining a network can help depositors and reduce fees in tough economic times.

Becoming part of a much larger network enables credit unions and community banks that may have a small number of ATMs to compete on a national scale with banks that have thousands, according to Jim Gowan, an executive vice president and the chief operating officer of Credit Union 24 Inc., a Tallahassee, Fla., network.

By joining a nationwide surcharge-free network, community banks and credit unions can include information on the networks in their sales pitches to retain their customers and attract new ones, Mr. Gowan said.

For example, Alliant Credit Union of Chicago (formerly United Airlines Employees' Credit Union) recently joined Credit Union 24, after learning the network had expanded, he said.

Alliant also is member of Co-op Financial Services, a Credit Union 24 competitor. Because the credit union belongs to both, its members have access to 75,000 surcharge-free ATMs nationwide.

The networks emphasize access to machines that offer surcharge-free withdrawals, and Co-op also stresses its ATMs where credit union members can make deposits.

"We are working to provide members with more convenience," said James A. Hanisch, executive vice president of development at Co-op, whose Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., network has 25,000 machines, 9,000 of which accept deposits.

Community banks and credit unions pay the network operators a monthly fee to let cardholders use the machines for withdrawals and deposits.

In the last few months networks have announced numerous partnerships and other agreements aimed at expanding their reach. The biggest has been the one between Credit Union 24 and Cardtronics Inc.'s Allpoint that gave people access to both networks and effectively created the nation's largest surcharge-free ATM network for credit unions, CU Here Premium, with 50,000 machines nationwide. (Allpoint, of Bethesda, Md., has a network of 32,000 machines for credit unions and banks.)

The two companies announced a one-year trial of their combined network in December. Last month the trial was extended another 30 months, because Credit Union 24's 500 credit union clients wanted something "more permanent," Mr. Gowan said.

U.S. Bancorp's MoneyPass of Minneapolis, which operates a network with more than 13,000 ATMs, also belongs to CU Here Premium. Since January, 100 financial institutions have joined MoneyPass, according to Doug Miraglia, the network's president.

This month Co-op announced that 111 credit unions had joined its network during the first half of the year. "This is tremendous growth, which also includes more than 500 new credit union-owned ATMs," said Eric Porter, Co-op's executive vice president of business development.

Consumers who are keeping a tight rein on their wallets and pocketbooks appear to have played a key role in the growth of surcharge-free ATM networks.

"Considering the economy … credit union membership, including benefits and access that the CU Here Premium program provide, are a viable and needed alternative to other financial institutions," said Jim Park, Credit Union 24's president and chief executive.

MoneyPass' Mr. Miraglia agreed. "We simply find that financial institutions are responding to their customers' demand that they get access to surcharge-free transactions," he said. "Consumers seem particularly cost-conscious right now."

Oregon Pacific Banking Co. of Florence, which operates seven ATMs, joined MoneyPass this month. One benefit of joining MoneyPass, according to Jim Clark, Oregon Pacific's president, is giving customers access to an ATM network much larger than his bank's. Also, when Oregon Pacific customers withdraw cash from a MoneyPass ATM, they save money, because they do not pay surcharges and foreign fees, he said.

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