Prepaid Debit Card Fees Are Wildly Inconsistent, Not Always Disclosed Up Front

The Federal Reserve says that prepaid debit cards are the fastest-growing non-cash way to pay. All that competition to get customers has led to an overall decrease in the fees associated with these cards, but a new study finds the price points for these fees are all over the place, and that companies are not always up front about disclosing them.

Our pals at Consumer Reports looked at 16 different prepaid cards and found a wide variety of fees, including:

Activation Fees: 9 of the 16 cards charged a fee to activate the card. Activation fees ranged from a low of $3 for the Walmart Money Card, nFinanSe card, and the Approved Card to $14.95 for some select RushCards. Some prepaid card issuers like NetSpend and Western Union are no longer charging activation fees.

Monthly Fees: 13 of the 16 cards charged monthly fees, ranging from $2.95 for the nFinanSe card to $9.95 for the Vision Premier card and the Univision card. Some prepaid cards, like the Bank Freedom card, will waive the monthly fee if the user makes a minimum deposit each month. Some cards, like the RushCard, give you the option of choosing the monthly fee plan or a per transaction fee plan.

Fee to Get Cash: 14 cards charged a fee to withdraw cash from a domestic ATM, ranging from $2 to $2.50. This does not include the additional charge imposed by ATM operators. Consumers using Green Dot and Univision prepaid cards can get free access to Allpoint network ATMs, located in numerous retail locations. Otherwise they pay a fee to use a non-network ATM

Fees to Find Out Your Balance: 12 cards imposed a fee for checking balances at ATMs, ranging from $.45 to $1 per inquiry. Again, the ATM operator may charge an additional fee. Many prepaid card issuers provide alternative methods to check balances for free, such as by email, text message, or phone.

Fees to Get a Paper Statement: 7 cards charged customers a fee to get a monthly paper statement detailing their transactions. Paper statement fees ranged from $1 for the Rush Card to $5.95 for the NetSpend Visa card. Many of the prepaid cards provide free access to monthly statements online or through email or text alerts.

Fees For Customer Service: Some cards enable all consumers to speak to a customer service representative for free. Other prepaid cards provide free customer service if the customer sets up direct deposit or only makes a limited number of calls per month. A few prepaid cards charge customers each time they make a call to customer service, ranging from $.50 per call for the NetSpend Visa card to $2.99 per call for the UPSide card.

Fees for Inactivity: 5 cards charged fees when cards are not used after a certain period of time. These dormancy fees range from $2.50 per month for the H&R Block Emerald Card (after three months of inactivity) and the Western Union MoneyWise card (after 13 months) to $5.95 per month for the NetSpend Visa card (after 90 days of inactivity).

Making it even more difficult to know what fees you’re going to face when you get one of these cards, CR says that only a few of the fees charged by card issuers are openly available to consumers before they purchase a card at a store. Some prepaid card issuers provide direct links to fee schedules on their web sites, but others make finding this information more difficult.

And if you think that your prepaid debit card offers the same protection as a standard debit card, you’d be mistaken.

For example, if someone with a standard debit card contacts a bank about a lost or stolen card within two business days, liability is limited up to $50 (or up to $500 if the consumer makes the report after two business days). Prepaid card users are not guaranteed these protections since the contract terms could be revised or rescinded at any time.

In addition, prepaid card users may not have the same FDIC guarantee as bank account holders that they’ll be able to recover all of their money in the event of a bank failure. Even if the prepaid card web site displays the familiar FDIC logo, it’s not always clear whether the cardholder will be able to recover the full amount on the card or a portion shared with other prepaid cardholders.

“Now that so many households are relying on prepaid cards to manage their finances, it’s time for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to take action to protect consumers,” said Michelle Jun, senior attorney for Consumers Union. “We need new rules that require fees to be disclosed in a simple format so consumers know the costs before they purchase a card. Prepaid cards should get the same strong protections as debit cards so consumers have the peace of mind that their money is safe if their card is lost or stolen.”

You can check out a PDF of the entire report here.