"Pew's research shows that inconsistent disclosures make it difficult to understand the fees associated with each prepaid card," Susan Weinstock, director of Pew's safe checking research, said in the news release. "Terms should be plainly stated so that consumers can make fully informed financial decisions."
Pew said its checking account disclosure model, released in 2012, has been voluntarily adopted by 26 banks and credit unions covering nearly 50 percent of domestic deposits.
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Reloadable prepaid cards, originally marketed to consumers without a checking account, have become more popular in recent years among other groups, including college students and parents providing an allowance to tweens.
Users can have earnings directly deposited, withdraw cash at ATMs and use the card in lieu of a credit or debit card—while avoiding overdraft fees or debt. Consumers loaded $71.6 billion onto prepaid cards in 2012, up from $28.6 billion in 2008, according to Mercator Advisory Group.
Consumer advocates' complaints about prepaid cards are twofold: They aren't subject to many of the same protections on unauthorized transactions as credit cards, and their fee structures can be confusing and expensive. In Pew's research, for example, fees for prepaid cards might include a purchase fee (average $9.95), monthly maintenance fee ($5.95), per-transaction fee ($1), out-of-network ATM fee ($2), and live customer service call fee ($1.95)
"Historically, they've had very high fees," said Brian Riley, a senior research director at CEB TowerGroup. "Checking the balance on your prepaid card, that's something silly to get a charge for."