WASHINGTON — Recent college graduate Molly Katchpole has $2,200 to her name, holds down two part-time jobs — one of them as a nanny — and describes her financial situation as paycheck-to-paycheck.
So when Bank of America announced that it would begin charging debit card users a $5 monthly fee, Katchpole got mad and started an online petition. More than 300,000 people signed it.
And on Tuesday, the nation's second-largest bank backed down.
Now the 22-year-old is getting the credit for the end of the debit card fee.
Katchpole is a Rhode Island native who lives in Washington, where she does freelance work for a political communications firm that supports unions and other Democratic-leaning causes. She describes herself as a progressive and says she stands in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement. She has a tattoo below her collarbone that reads: "Empathy."
"I believe that is the most important quality that a person can have, is the ability to empathize with others," she said. "When I first started the petition, and even now, people were saying, 'Just close your bank account and go to another bank.' I think people are forgetting that not everybody can easily close their bank and join a credit union. There are some neighborhoods in this country where there's only one bank."
Shortly after Bank of America announced plans a month ago to start charging the fee, she put the petition on Change.org, a nonpartisan website that allows individuals and advocacy groups to launch campaigns on any topic.
After the bank relented, Change.org declared on its home page: "We Won."
"It's an awesome display of the potential power that real people can have when they come together," said Ben Rattray, the site's founder and CEO.
Katchpole credited the popularity of her petition to good timing, calling it "stupid" for Bank of America to announce the fees in the midst of the Wall Street protests. Her boyfriend, Ben Sisko, said Katchpole succeeded because she expressed her outrage so clearly and concisely.
The petition read, in part: "The American people bailed out Bank of America during a financial crisis the banks helped create. ... How can you justify squeezing another $60 a year from your debit card customers? This is despicable."
A Bank of America executive called Katchpole more than three weeks ago to explain the fees, but by then it had already lost her as a customer to a community bank.
Bank spokesman Ernesto Anguill declined to say precisely what role the petition played. He said Bank of America scrapped the fees after listening to public reaction and gauging the competition from other banks that backed off plans for similar charges.
The outcry over Bank of America prompted other major banks, including JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Wells Fargo & Co., to cancel tests of their own debit card fees.
Michael McCauley, a spokesman for Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports Magazine, said the petition was a sign that Bank of America had misjudged its customers, just as Netflix did when it tried to divide its DVD-rental and online streaming businesses. He called Katchpole an inspiration to consumers who feel they are being treated poorly.
"The debit card issue pushed her over the edge, and she took action, and look at the impact that she's had. I think it's remarkable," he said.
Katchpole grew up in Cumberland, R.I., a town of 33,000, and graduated last spring from Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I., with a degree in art and architectural history. She was on the debate team in high school and wrote letters to her local paper.Comment on this story
"When she had something that she wanted to say, she usually said it, and if she felt other people needed to know, then she found the avenue to express it," said her mother, Kathy Katchpole, a physical therapist. "She's always had pretty strong views one way or the other."
She and her boyfriend live in a tiny, one-bedroom basement apartment, where they split the $1,250 rent. Sisko works as a paralegal, and Katchpole is hoping to find a full-time job in politics.
Katchpole's parents and boyfriend remain Bank of America customers.
"I haven't decided if I'm going to switch yet," Sisko said. After all, he said, "the petition worked!"