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PEORIA, Ill. – While some members are being encouraged by their credit unions to use online billpay services instead of using checks to pay their bills, some others have difficulty just opening a checking account with a financial institution either because of lack of experience with consumer banking or past financial problems that caused an account of theirs to close. CEFCU has implemented a “Get Checking” program for these members to educate them on using and maintaining a checking account and to help them open one with the credit union. Paul Fager, vice president of electronic funds transfer for the $2.4-billion CEFCU, said the credit union was inspired to open the program by an article that ran in the Aug. 2, 2001 of American Banker, “Check Bouncers Get Second Chance.” The article discussed an initiative by eFunds Corp. and a local credit counseling institution in Milwaukee to provide a financial management course to consumers who reported having problems with maintaining a checking account. Fager said CEFCU decided a program like that would be beneficial to consumers in the Peoria area, but when he contacted eFunds about setting up the program there, they told him they had “other targets in mind, Peoria is not on our radar screen.” Undaunted, Fager and CEFCU went to work setting up the program themselves. They were joined in their effort by three area banks – National City, Union Planter, and Pekin Savings – and the local Consumer Credit Counseling Service to implement a program based on the one run in Milwaukee through eFunds. Each of the four financials put up $250 in seed money to get the program started. Designed by Kim Terry from the University of Wisconsin’s Milwaukee Extension office with conceptual support coming from efunds, it took CEFCU about a year to pull the program together. Participants in the Get Checking program attend a three-hour education session that features topics such as balancing a check book, reconciling a check registry, and establishing and sticking to a household budget. Once they complete the session and pass a competency test, participants receive a certificate of course completion and are eligible to open a checking account with CEFCU. In addition, their names are sent to ChexSystems, which is owned by eFunds, and the company in turn flags the names so they can be readily identified by financials that participate with ChexSystems. The three-hour session is taught by a Consumer Credit Counseling Service employee. Fager said the instructor was deliberately selected from an objective third party – as opposed to choosing someone from the credit union or one of the participating banks – to assure the instruction would not try to sway participants towards credit unions or banks. “We wanted the focus to be on managing checking accounts, not which type of financial is better or worse,” he said. Fager said the program is not only open to members who haven’t been able to open a checking account, but also to those who have one with the credit union but who are on the verge of having their accounts closed because of mismanagement. “If they complete the program, they can keep their checking account open with us,” he said. Members and non-members who have committed fraud are not eligible participate in the program or open a checking account with the credit unions. So far, two sessions have been held – one each in March and April. Fager said 90% of the people who attended and completed the program so far have been CEFCU referrals. About 60 people attended each class . The credit union is also in the process of setting up a similar program in Decatur. “I’m very excited about the Get Checking program. It’s a way to help people who have had difficulty managing money get back on their feet,” Fager said. -

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