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Consumer agency targets prepaid cards

WASHINGTON —The new federal consumer watchdog agency is considering drafting new rules governing transparency and safety in the rapidly growing market for prepaid cards.

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau director Richard Cordray said the cards have fewer regulatory protections than bank accounts and debit cards. The bureau said it will focus rule-making on three key areas: disclosure of fees and terms, liability for unauthorized transactions and niche product features, such as overdrawing an account. The bureau was to hold a field hearing on the cards Wednesday in North Carolina.

"The people who use prepaid cards are, in many instances, the most vulnerable among us," Cordray said. "All consumers need, and deserve, products which are safe and whose costs and risks are clear up front."

The rules would apply specifically to prepaid cards that can be reloaded and used at an array of locations. Many consumers are using these cards as replacements for traditional checking accounts. According to a recent focus group convened by the Pew Health Group, consumers said the cards help them avoid costly bank overdraft fees and are a useful budgeting tool. Generally, consumers can spend only the money they have loaded onto the card.

But the Pew focus group found that consumers are concerned about the number of fees associated with prepaid cards. They include charges to buy the card, reload money, withdraw money from an ATM and call customer service.

The bureau said there is no industrywide standard on disclosures, making it hard for consumers to comparison shop. In addition, some cards offer features allowing customers to overdraw their accounts or build their credit. The bureau is seeking feedback on the costs, benefits and consumer-protection issues associated with those features.

Terry Maher, general counsel at the Network Branded Prepaid Card Association, said the trade group supports transparent disclosures. Several of its members have been working with advocacy groups on test forms, he said.

Maher said the group is also open to requiring prepaid card providers that offer overdrafts to comply with the same regulations for those fees as banks. But he said it "would be a mistake" to ban the cards altogether.

"We're in favor of consumers being able to choose the product that's right for them after they get clear and transparent disclosures," Maher said.

Consumer agency targets prepaid cards 05/23/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 23, 2012 9:06pm]
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