Last week, Consumers Union (the non-for-profit publishers of Consumer Reports) provided an update to their September 2009 study of Prepaid Cards, somewhat provocatively entitled “Prepaid Cards: Second-Tier Bank Account Substitutes?”
Click here to download the new report.
What this report articulates overall is: even new, born-in-the-21st-century, financial services and products (like prepaid cards) can be more expensive and less people-friendly than they need to be, jeopardizing their potential to be a replacement for 19th-century services like checking accounts.
The report does not analyze the cause for this, but it is really what I have been talking about time and again on this blog: a lot of financial services suppliers are both greedy and incompetent.
Too many fat cats unwilling or unable to use innovation to improve the performance-over-price ratio of what they deliver.
If it was not for poor execution by many companies, here is why prepaid cards are actually a good substitution for checking accounts:
Pay by card
|Prepaid Card||Checking Account|
|Available to all||Yes||Often not if listed on Chex System|
|FDIC protection||Yes in most cases||Yes in most cases|
|Pay by Card||Yes||Yes, with check or ATM card|
|Minimum balance||No||Yes in most cases|
|Overdraft Fees||No in most cases||Yes in most cases|
|Monthly Fees||Yes, usually <$5||Wait until FinReg goes into effect in April 2011…|
I do have a few specific issues with the Consumers Union report. In the interest of full disclosure, I run a company that provides prepaid cards, and am evidently disappointed that our product (the UPside Visa Prepaid Card) was not mentioned in it. I guess when you want to make a point that products are too expensive and not consumer-friendly enough, leaving out the lowest cost and most complete products available helps strengthen that point.
But, hey, product reviewers have to select a manageable subset and can’t include everybody. And why would I complain that our product is not listed in a rather negative report?
Back to what I think is not entirely justified in the Consumers Union report, in reference to their Policy Recommendations in paragraph V:
- Fees: for sure they ought to be limited and transparent. Overdraft and dormancy fees which are mostly punitive should go away (we don’t have any on UPside cards). However, requesting that paper statements be always provided at no fee or a nominal fee makes little sense in the days of Internet and increasing postage costs. Almost no cardholder is asking for paper statements.
- Rights to re-credits in case of lost or stolen cards: here Consumers Union is confusing the theory – i.e. what Terms & Conditions have to legally say- and the practice – i.e. what companies really do-. Most issuers will re-credit an account that was previously suspended following a loss or theft, rather than risking to lose the cardholder by waiting too long to do it. So most incidents are resolved well beyond what the T&C’s of a cardholder agreement typically say. Requesting that re-credits be systematic, generalized and the same as with bank accounts that often rely on minimum balances and other fees to cover operational costs, is unrealistic.
- Reduce Loss Cap to $50 on all cards, including prepaid. Same as above: most issuers will actually waive loss caps rather than losing a customer, even though they have a lot less headroom to do so with a prepaid card than with a debit or credit card. Forcing alignment of all cards without understanding the underpinning differences in profitability and business models will not work.
- Chargeback Protection. Well, this is not even discussed in the report, so not sure why that point is there, besides juste making the list longer. I am not aware that prepaid card issuers are behaving any differently than issuers of debit cards linked to a checking account.
- FDIC protection. What they mean here is what is called “pass-through” protection, i.e. making it clear that the protection applies to cards individually rather than all the cards in aggregate at the issuer. I agree with this, but let’s remember that no prepaid card reviewed in the report nor any prepaid card that I know of in the US, can exceed a balance of a few $1,000′s. So demanding a $250,000 protection per card is somewhat extreme. I am not sure what the Anti Money Laundering enforcers would think about prepaid cards with balances of up to a quarter million dollars…
Overall, the prepaid card industry has some progress to make and Consumers Union does a good job of keeping stakeholders on their toes. However, giving the impression that all prepaid cards are ‘second tier’ compared to bank accounts, is somewhat unfair to those of us who are trying hard to do better than checking accounts at a lower cost and without the risks of overdrafts.