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Technically, members need something in common. But in reality, everyone can get in.

New York Times

Everyone can join a credit union, but not everyone can join any credit union.

This turns out to be a source of much confusion for consumers looking for a better checking account, a more generous credit card or a cheaper auto or home loan. By their very name, credit unions suggest exclusivity. After all, unions are something you have to join, and it isn't always clear from walking by a credit union or running across one on the Web whether everyone is welcome.

But over the years, some of the biggest credit unions with some of the best deals have quietly opened up membership to everybody. This infuriates bankers, who must compete with them while also paying income taxes that the nonprofit credit unions do not owe. Consumers, however, ought to rejoice and take a closer look at some of the more aggressive credit unions, since there may be big savings for the taking once you realize you are eligible.

Today, credit unions often (but not always) offer lower interest rates on credit cards and better deals on auto and other loans than most banks.

Eligibility for credit union membership has evolved, though in every case members are supposed to have what is known as a "common bond." One way to become a member is through occupational classification, where credit union members work for the same employer or perform the same job. The second is a community credit union, where members must live in the same "well-defined" region.

Things get murky with the third type, what is known as the "multiple common bond" credit union, which can pull in many different groups of eligible members as long as they are within reasonable proximity of the credit union. In the early 1980s, members of associations were allowed to join credit unions as part of an effort to include populations the banks were not reaching.

In practice, this has opened up credit union membership to anyone in the United States. About 10 years ago, the Pentagon Federal Credit Union approached the National Military Family Association and offered to let its members join the credit union. What PenFed really got out of the deal, however, was the ability to say on its website that if prospective members didn't meet other eligibility requirements (like working for the Defense Department), they could simply join the military family association for $20 and become eligible that way.

In the years since, membership in the association has risen to 45,000 from fewer than 10,000. How many joined just to slip through the side door into the credit union? "Probably most of them," said Joyce Raezer, the association's executive director. "It was a win-win for both of us, and it's enabled us to do a lot more for military families." The new members won, too, because they got access to products like PenFed's excellent Visa Platinum Cashback Rewards credit card.

This is perfectly legal, though members' common bond may only be a shared lust for credit card rebates.

What representatives of the American Bankers Association find particularly objectionable, though, are the big credit unions that have their own associations for what appears to be the express purpose of signing up people and then making them eligible for credit union membership.

This jockeying for members is an amusing spectator sport - until a credit union blows up, that is. In 2008, the credit union regulator liquidated Norlarco Credit Union, based in Fort Collins, Colo., after it had helped to organize and underwrite a Florida real estate lending binge. In an autopsy performed by the credit union administration's Office of Inspector General, auditors noted that about 43 percent of the borrowers lived in Miami-Dade County.

How did those people get to be members of a credit union in Colorado? It was easy. Norlarco told the Florida dwellers that they could join the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory or other groups. Membership allowed them to become credit union members and, it turns out, to roll the dice on a bit of house-flipping.

The bottom line is this: Anyone can join a credit union.

And until the industry regulator stops allowing many of the biggest credit unions to offer services to anyone who shows up or logs in, you'd be foolish not to check out a few the next time you're in need of financial services.