Consumer Law

New government-issued debit cards impose many fees, may raise privacy issues

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Government entities in California and Illinois have come up with a novel way to cut costs and, potentially, even raise money.

New cards being issued to individuals—to pay transit fares, in Chicago, and for identification, in Oakland—will have an optional dual feature. Those who wish to can also use them as preloaded debit cards.

The debit card feature is being touted as a convenience, especially to those who may have few banking options. But those who use the dual-option cards should read the contractual fine print, because they impose lots of fees for what many might consider ordinary use, according to the Chicago Tribune and San Francisco Chronicle.

Among the charges that will be imposed are monthly fees for loading the card ($1 in Oakland, even when the money is a direct deposit of federal benefits, and $2.95 for Chicago’s Ventra, if a credit card is used for the purchase); and per-occurrence fees for calling a customer service representative ($1.75 in Oakland and $2 in Chicago) and using an automated teller machine to get money (at least $1.50 on both cards).

The California card also charges a $2.99 monthly usage fee and a 75-cent fee for every purchase. Making a complaint in Chicago will start the clock on a $10 per hour “research” fee.

Meanwhile, those who decide to stop using their Ventra transit card and want to get a refund of the remaining balance will be charged a $6 fee. If the card is not used for 18 months, a $5 “dormancy” fee will apply to the transit side and another $2 will be charged to the debit side, for a total of $7 monthly, the Tribune reports.

According to the articles, the cities are the first in the country to offer such preloaded debit cards, and may serve as models for similar programs elsewhere. Consumer advocates are dubious that the cards are a good deal, and the Chicago Tribune has editorialized against Ventra’s optional debit card feature.

“Why should public transit agencies be involved in making interchange fees off people?” questions Linda Sherry of Consumer Action. “These are supposed to be public-serving agencies, and a fee-laden card isn’t exactly a public service.”

Senior attorney Michelle Jun of Consumer’s Union, an advocacy organization related to Consumer Reports magazine, had a similar perspective.

“A city should provide products that serve consumers best and not rip people off,” she said. “There will be a number of cards cheaper than this card.”

In California, there is also a potential privacy issue, since the dual cards will be used as identification and hence contain personal information including the holder’s date of birth.

Both newspapers report that a number of bank debit cards charge lower fees.

Updated on March 22 to add link to subsequent Chicago Tribune editorial.

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