Prepaid debit card users face fee hike
Consumers to bear rate cut to retailers
WASHINGTON — Millions of poor Americans who use prepaid debit cards could soon face higher fees.
Under a rule to take effect in July, companies that issue debit cards must reduce the fees they charge retailers. To recoup their lost revenue, banks that offer the cards are raising fees for people who use them.
People who use prepaid debit cards, typically low-income consumers and those collecting government benefits, are supposed to be shielded from the fee hikes. To protect them, the rule provided an exemption: It let companies that issue prepaid cards keep charging retailers higher rates.
But that exemption could take up to a year to enact. In the meantime, card companies will probably charge users of prepaid cards higher fees to recoup the lost revenue.
About 70 percent of prepaid card users earn under $45,000, according to data from Aite Group, a research firm. The cards, preloaded with cash, give users easy access to their money. Others use them to receive government benefits.
Annual fees for the cards can run $108 to $320, according to data analyzed by the consulting firm Bretton Woods Inc. To make up the swipe-fee revenue they would lose while the exemption is phased in, card issuers would need to raise fees by up to $220.
If prepaid card companies can’t collect high swipe-fees, “lower-income people are going to get clobbered,’’ said Todd Zywicki, a George Mason University law professor.
Michelle Coppola, a sales consultant near Roanoke, Va., says she struggled with banks’ minimum balance rules and overdraft fees before switching to prepaid cards.
“There’s been times when I haven’t made enough money on my job, and I couldn’t keep up with the amount of money the bank wanted in the account,’’ said Coppola, 50.
With a prepaid card, “If I don’t have enough money, I don’t have to worry about fees,’’ she said.
Coppola’s card costs $9.95 for activation, plus $8.95 a month and $2.50 for each ATM withdrawal. If her fees jumped, Coppola said she’d switch to a bank account, even though she might pay more in fees, such as for overdraft protection.
No one knows exactly what the new rule from the Federal Reserve will require once it is released. It could take months for computers to recognize new categories of cards, said Brian Riley, a research director with Tower Group, a consulting firm.
Banks and other companies that issue prepaid cards will have to change how they handle debit transactions. So will Visa and MasterCard. The same for payment processors, networks that process PIN transactions and government agencies.
“It’s not like flipping a switch; there’s definitely lots of coding involved,’’ said Madeline Aufseeser, who spent decades in the prepaid industry and is now at the Aite Group.