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What should I know about pre-paid debit cards?

People are swiping more at the checkout line, and they are not using a traditional credit or debit card. Millions of consumers are now using prepaid debit cards to make payments. Prepaid cards are debit cards without a bank account attached. Cards provide instant benefits to customers including access to a wide array of ATM networks, faster payment, and less of a need to carry cash.

The speedy growth in the prepaid debit card market is due to several needs. First, nearly 30 percent of Ohioans are under-banked. This means either they have no bank account or they have an account but use check cashers and fringe lenders. These cards fill some of that void. Second, cards reduce costs to employers and government agencies. It is cheaper and quicker to use a debit card than to produce a paper check. Ohio has moved to cards (if direct deposit is not used) for unemployment and food assistance. Social Security, if not direct deposited, is now also provided on debit cards. Nevertheless, there are some costs to the consumer. Consumer advocates have rightful concerns about the fees on these cards and how much the user knows about them. Some cards charge for basic services like monthly access and ATM fees. Additional fees include overdraft, replacement, paper statements, customer service calls, and load fees. A major concern is that some cards have a point-of-sale transaction fee, meaning a charge "per" swipe. The overall concern is that fees will add up and reduce the overall benefit of the card.

Perhaps the largest challenge for clients entering the field of prepaid debit cards is the abundance of choices. There are hundreds of different cards with different fee structures. Greater openness is needed so that customers can compare cards to each other. A nonprofit research group, CFSI, designed a disclosure box that is an excellent way for customers to understand the costs of a card and compare it to others (see below).

Some advice for card shopping includes:

  • Stay away from celebrity-branded cards, which often have higher fees;
  • Avoid cards with overdraft fees and lines of credit;
  • Determine what functions are of interest to identify the best card; and
  • Direct deposit into a bank account is almost always the best option.

This FAQ was written by David Rothstein of Policy Matters Ohio and the New America Foundation,    and appeared as a story in Volume 28, Issue 3 of "The Alert" - a newsletter for seniors published by Legal Aid. Click here to read the full issue.

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