NEWS

Hidden Fees

Tuesday
Feb082011

Unemployment Debit Cards Carry Hidden Fees

As if the nation's downtrodden unemployed don't have enough hardship to deal with, it turns out that many face hidden fees when accessing their unemployment benefits.

According to consumer groups, unemployment insurance (UI) debit cards are hitting the unemployed where it hurts most through hidden fees that may take users by surprise, assuming they don’t read the fine print. And guess who's often profiting from these fees? The very same banks that helped caused the recession.

A majority of Americans in about 30 states receive their unemployment benefits directly deposited into their checking accounts, funds which can be accessed with a UI debit card. The expeditious method serves both the unemployed individual by giving them speedy access to their funds while simultaneously saving the state money, according to stateline.org. Moreover, unemployed individuals without bank accounts have the luxury of  avoiding check-cashing fees and making purchases with their card. Fast and convenient though it may be, the fees can be significant in some states. In Texas, the Chase UI card charges a $5 ATM fee for every withdrawal after the first one in a given month. According to the Consumers Union:

Some states, like Nebraska and Minnesota provide the ReliaCard run by U.S. Bank that has a $20 Overdraft Fee! Or if you have a bank account you’d like the funds transferred to, you’ll need to pay $2.50 to move the money over for Missouri Access recipients.

"If you are issued your unemployment benefits on a prepaid card, be sure to read the terms and conditions," Suzanne Martindale, an associate policy analyst at Consumers Union has said. In 2009, the U.S. Labor Department offered guidance to states outlining “best practices” for UI debit cards, such as: eliminate overdraft charges; allow for more than one free ATM withdrawal per payment and don’t charge fees when the card is used to make purchases.

Unfortunately, these guidelines are routinely ignored. And much like the way that many Americans were lured into toxic mortages, it comes down to "reading the fine print". . . . yet again.

Worse yet, it seems that these cards are not covered under legislation enacted by Congress last year to reform Wall Street, consequently allowing the issuing banks to raise fees to the merchant and consumer at will. 

Senators Robert Menendez and Richard Durbin are proposing new rules that would limit the fees on all prepaid cards. Further, the legislation would create "a new framework to ensure consumers aren’t fleeced by prepaid cards," according to Senator Menendez.

In a time of economic uncertainty for the average worker and mega bonuses for bankers, the unemployed have suffered enough abuse. Let's not use UI debit cards as one more opportunity to hit them when they're down.

Thursday
Jan202011

Pre-Paid Credit Cards Cheat Those With Bad Credit 

Being poor in America these days, or simply struggling with bad credit, is like having a bullseye on your back. Any number of businesses will try to make a buck off your misfortune, including some of the most respected banks in America. (Okay, "respected banks" may be an oxymoron.)

Take pre-paid credit cards as an example. The main reason that people get such cards is that they don't have good enough credit to borrow money using standards cards -- indeed, they may not even have a bank account -- but need a credit card to do key things, like rent a car or check into a hotel. (Parents also give such cards to their kids.) Thanks to the economic downturn, there's been a surge of Americans with terrible credit and pre-paid cards have become a booming business. According to the Network Branded Prepaid Credit Card Association, $36 billion was loaded onto prepaid credit cards in 2010, or twice that of 2009.

Use of these cards may soar even further, because new federal rules reduce the fees that banks can charge for debit card usage. But big banks managed to get prepaid cards exempted from federal credit card legislation.

That's a problem, since prepaid credit cards are often loaded with hidden fees that bilk consumers. Areport by Consumers Union examined fees for a range of prepaid cards and found a veritable blizzard of fees. These include:

  • Initiation or activation fees -- which average $10, but can be as high as $39.95.
  • Monthly fees -- which range up to $10.
  • Point of sale transaction fees -- which can be $1 for each charge made on the card
  • Cash withdrawal fees;
  • Balance inquiry fees -- which can be $1 each time you check your balance. 
  • Fees for transaction statements, including paper and other;
  • Customer service fees -- which can be $3 for calling a customer service rep.
  • Bill payment fees.
  • Fees to add or “load” funds.
  • Fees to get your remaining funds when closing the account -- up to $15
  • Overdraft or “shortage” fees.

And good luck figuring out all the details about these fees. As the report states:

Consumers typically can find information on only a few of the fees before
deciding to sign up, purchase and use prepaid cards. Retail displays often contain only
purchase prices and initial load amounts. Consumers who research or purchase cards
online will often have to engage in a careful inspection of the prepaid card websites to
find complete fee information. Access to fee information is often less prominent on
prepaid card websites than the sign up pages or registration forms for card purchase. If a
consumer is able to find the fee information, including fee types and fee amounts, they are usually in small print in the Cardholder Agreement or Terms and Conditions.

Critics have been loudly criticizing new regulations on Wall Street and lending institutions passed by Congress over the past two years. But the truth is that there are many ways in which these rules do not go far enough and leave consumers vulnerable to be being cheated. The abysmally weak regulation of prepaid credit cards is a case and point.

The downsides of prepaid credit cards got a lot of attention in November when Connecticut State Attorney General Richard Blumenthal went after prepaid credit card endorsed by the Kardishian sisters, reality TV stars.  The so-called "Kardashian Kard," said Blumenthal: "is filled with gotcha fees and charges, such as $99.95 annual fees, $7.95 monthly fees (after the first year), ATM withdrawal fees, bill pay fees, loading fees -- and even charges for talking to a live operator at their service center, and a card cancellation fee."

Blumenthal fired off a threatening letter to University National Bank, which issued the card, complaining that the "egregious fees" raised ethical and legal questions. The Kardashian sisters immediately pulled the card off the market. But no laws were changed and such cards live on.

And what's really disturbing here is that it is mostly low-income Americans who use these cards and pay those hidden fees -- effectively transferring some of their meager wealth to powerful financial institutions. None of this has gone unnoticed on Capitol Hill, where Senators Robert Menendez, Jeff Merkley, and Richard Durbin have introduced the "Prepaid Card Consumer Protection Act." As described by Senator Menendez, the bill would require:

  • Full disclosure of all fees before the consumer buys the card, including a wallet-sized summary of all fees and a toll-free telephone number for customer service.
  • Limits on the types of fees that can be charged, including a ban on overdraft fees, balance inquiry fees, customer service fees, fees for inactivity, account closure fees, and other types of fees.
  • Consumer protections for prepaid cards such as (1) Regulation E protection against loss or theft and (2) FDIC insurance to protect consumers’ money if the card company goes bankrupt.  Debit cards already have these consumer protections, but prepaid cards don’t.
  • The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the FDIC would issue regulations within 9 months of enactment.

Consumers Union Report on Pre-Paid Credit Cards

Wednesday
Dec222010

'Tis the Season to Get Cheated: Gift Cards Fleece Consumers

Most people think of gift cards as akin to cash. After all, they are paid for up front. But a recent study by Bankrate.com found that some gift cards come laden with unethical and deceptive fees. For example, gift cards issued by top banks -- including Chase Visa and U.S. Bank -- start charging a $2.50 fee every month if you don't use up the card in the first year. 

There are also fees attached to buying gift cards, in effect making consumers pay for the privilege of spending money on the card. These fees can range up to $5. Some gift cards even deduct funds from the card if a consumer calls up to find out the balance. 

Congress passed new rules last year to stop consumers from getting gouged by gift card issuers, but there are still loopholes.