National Consumers League

Feds rolling out tax refund-loaded cards for the unbanked


The federal agencies that provide monetary benefits to citizens have figured out that they can save a lot of money if they load those benefits onto a prepaid card instead of issuing a check. (A check costs the government $1.00 whereas benefits loaded onto a card costs only 10 cents.) Great idea for the U.S. Treasury, which recently announced that it would be rolling out a tax refund-loaded card to interested, unbanked parties, but does it work for beneficiaries? Not if the fees citizens have to pay to use the cards eat away at their benefits. (Backlash against these fees was what pushed the Kardashian Kard off the market quickly after it was announced last December.) Fees might include a charge for the card itself and a monthly maintenance fee, fees for loading more money on the card, or getting balances or paying for out-of-network ATM withdrawals, and possibly customer service calls. To the rescue comes Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), who has introduced legislation that rightly calls for a limit on the fees companies can charge for using these cards. Senators Durbin (D-Il) and Merkley (D-OR)  have joined Menendez call for capping fees. According to Senator Menendez, “The industry can still make money … but it can do so in a way that’s fairer to the consumer.” The Obama Administration’s goal in introducing these prepaid cards was principally to focus on the 25 percent of Americans who don’t use banks – that’s millions of Americans who don’t bank. And estimates are that 22 percent of Black households don’t use banks. This has prompted radio talk show host Tom Joyner to issue his own branded card for federal benefits. The problem is, Joyner’s card under the name “Reach Media” has fees that are sky-high: an activation fee of $9.95 and monthly charges of $8.95, according to the Post. So let the beneficiary beware until the Menendez bill passes. Those who receive federal benefits should be protected from outrageous fees – whether they come from a Tom Joyner or some other company. NCL, for one, will do all we can to ensure that the benefits go where they should, to beneficiaries and not card issuers looking to make a fast buck.