At an event in Durham, N.C. on Wednesday, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau director Richard Cordray announced that the agency is “decid[ing] how we should go about regulating prepaid cards to better protect consumers and to provide clear rules for prepaid providers.”
The rapidly growing prepaid market is attracting both banks and non-banks, and more Americans, especially those classified as “unbanked” or “underbanked” are using these cards as de facto checking accounts.
The CFPB is concerned because these cards don’t have the disclosure requirements or protections of conventional checking accounts. “And that is especially troubling because the people who use prepaid cards are, in many instances, the most vulnerable among us,” Cordray said.
After his speech, there was a panel discussion and an open-mic session, during which consumer advocates and financial industry executives stated their cases for why various aspects of prepaid cards should or shouldn’t be regulated. Several ordinary people who self-identified as prepaid debit users also talked about what they liked and didn’t like about their cards.
Prepaid Debit as Regulatory Dodge: Martin Eakes, CEO of the Center for Responsible Lending, accused financial institutions of playing regulatory arbitrage, using prepaid debit cards as an end run around rules that to which checking account-linked debit cards are subject. Large prepaid providers do generally conform to the rules that dictate what happens when a customer’s bank or credit card is lost or stolen, as well as structure their accounts so prepaid users are covered by FDIC insurance on what’s called a “pass-through” basis. But right now, there’s no way for a customer to know for sure. Consumer advocates and Jeremy Kuiper, managing director of the payment solutions group at Bancorp Bank, expressed support for requiring FDIC protection for funds deposited onto prepaid debit cards.
Harm from Arbitration: Eakes also called for the elimination of mandatory arbitration clauses in cardholder agreements and said prepaid cards shouldn’t be subject to any kind of insufficient funds or overdraft penalties. These clauses, which are becoming increasingly common in the terms and conditions of everything from credit card agreements to cell phone contracts, prohibit customers from banding together and filing a class-action lawsuit if something goes wrong. Since these clauses are generally buried in pages of legalese rendered in tiny fonts, a lot of people don’t notice them, but consumer advocates and some legal experts say they’re bad news. “Class actions are the only realistic remedies for consumers,” attorney Bruce Rogow told TIME Moneyland in an earlier story.
Prepaid Shouldn’t Include Credit: Eakes and others who spoke during the panel discussion as well as in the open-mic session that followed unanimously said that there’s no place for credit — via overdraft or direct deposit advances, which advocates call payday lending by another name — in a prepaid debit card. NetSpend’s Henry he defended his company’s overdraft practices, though. He there were buffers in place before customers were hit with a fee, and that those fees were cheaper than bank overdrafts.