WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) today finalized strong federal consumer protections for prepaid account users. The new rule requires financial institutions to limit consumers’ losses when funds are stolen or cards are lost, investigate and resolve errors, and give consumers free and easy access to account information. The Bureau also finalized new “Know Before You Owe” disclosures for prepaid accounts to give consumers clear, upfront information about fees and other key details. Finally, prepaid companies must now generally offer protections similar to those for credit cards if consumers are allowed to use credit on their accounts to pay for transactions that they lack the money to cover.
“Many consumers rely on prepaid cards to make purchases and access funds, but until now they were not guaranteed strong consumer protections under federal law,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “This rule closes loopholes and protects prepaid consumers when they swipe their card, shop online, or scan their smartphone. And it backs up those protections with important new disclosures to let consumers know before they owe.”
Prepaid accounts are among the fastest growing consumer financial products in the United States, usually purchased at retail outlets or online. The amount consumers put on “general purpose reloadable” prepaid cards grew from less than $1 billion in 2003 to nearly $65 billion in 2012. The total dollar value loaded onto these prepaid cards is expected to nearly double to $112 billion by 2018. Prepaid accounts may be loaded with funds by a consumer or by a third party, such as an employer. Consumers generally can use these accounts to make payments, store funds, withdraw cash at ATMs, receive direct deposits, or send money to others.
The new rule applies specific federal consumer protections to broad swaths of the prepaid market for the first time. It covers traditional prepaid cards, including general purpose reloadable cards. It also applies to mobile wallets, person-to-person payment products, and other electronic prepaid accounts that can store funds. Other prepaid accounts covered by the new rule include: payroll cards; student financial aid disbursement cards; tax refund cards; and certain federal, state, and local government benefit cards such as those used to distribute unemployment insurance and child support.
Prepaid ProtectionsFor many consumers, prepaid accounts are an alternative to traditional checking accounts, but until now they had only limited federal protections. The new rule gives prepaid account consumers important protections under the Electronic Fund Transfer Act, which are similar to those for checking account consumers. They include:
- Free and easy access to account information: Financial
institutions must make certain account information available for free by
telephone, online, and in writing upon request, unless they provide periodic
statements. Unlike checking account customers, prepaid consumers typically do
not receive periodic statements by mail. The rule ensures that consumers have
access to their account balances, their transaction history, and the fees
they’ve been charged.
- Error resolution rights: Financial
institutions must cooperate with consumers who find unauthorized or fraudulent
charges, or other errors, on their accounts to investigate and resolve these
incidents in a timely way, and where appropriate, restore missing funds. If the
financial institution cannot do so within a certain period of time, it will
generally be required to provisionally credit the disputed amount to the consumer
while it finishes its investigation.
- Protections for lost cards and unauthorized
new rule protects consumers against withdrawals, purchases, or other
unauthorized transactions if their prepaid cards are lost or stolen. The rule
limits consumers’ liability for unauthorized charges and creates a timely way
for them to get their money back. As long as the consumer promptly notifies
their financial institution, the consumer’s responsibility for unauthorized
charges will be limited to $50.
Know Before You Owe: Prepaid DisclosuresThe Bureau’s new rule includes new “Know Before You Owe” prepaid disclosures which provide consumers with standard, easy-to-understand, upfront information about prepaid accounts. Consumers cannot always tell what fees apply to prepaid accounts before purchasing or signing up for them because the disclosures may be inside the packaging or hard to find online. This can make it difficult to comparison shop and make well-informed decisions. The new rule sets an industry-wide standard on fee disclosures for prepaid accounts. This follows the tradition of the Bureau’s “Know Before You Owe” disclosure forms for mortgages and student financial aid offers. These disclosures simplify, organize, and present information in a way the consumer can easily understand and act upon. Under the new rule, prepaid consumers will have access to:
easy-to-understand, upfront information: The
CFPB rule requires two forms, one short and one long, with easy-to-understand
disclosures. The short form concisely and clearly highlights key prepaid
account information, including the fees the CFPB believes are most important to
consumers shopping for a prepaid account. These include a periodic fee, per
purchase fee, ATM withdrawal and balance inquiry fees, cash reload fee,
customer service fees, and inactivity fee. The short form also must disclose
certain information about additional types of fees that the consumer may be
charged. Consumers will also get or be able to access the comprehensive long
form disclosure containing a complete list of fees and certain other key
information before acquiring the account.
- Publicly available card agreements: To make
comparison shopping easier, the rule requires prepaid account issuers to post
on their websites the prepaid account agreements they offer to the general
public. Additionally, with a few exceptions, issuers must submit all agreements
to the CFPB, which intends to post them on a public, Bureau-maintained website
at a future date. Also, issuers must make any agreement not required to be
posted on their website available to applicable consumers.
Credit ProtectionsThe new rule includes strong protections for consumers using credit products that allow them the option of spending more money than they have deposited into the prepaid account. Under the rule, prepaid issuers must give consumers protections similar to those on credit cards if consumers are allowed to use certain linked credit products to pay transactions that their prepaid funds would not fully cover. These protections stem mainly from the Truth in Lending Act and the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act (CARD Act). Protections that apply to such prepaid credit products include:
- Ability to pay: Prepaid companies, like credit card
issuers, must make sure consumers have the ability to repay the debt before
offering credit. The new rule states that companies cannot open a credit card
account or increase a credit line related to a prepaid card unless they
consider the consumer’s ability to make required payments. For consumers under
21, the companies will be required to assess these consumers’ independent
ability to repay.
- Monthly credit billing statement: Prepaid
companies have to give consumers regular statements like those credit card
consumers receive. This statement will detail fees, and if applicable, the
interest rate, what they have borrowed, how much they owe, and other key
information about repaying the debt.
- Reasonable time to pay and limits on late fees: Prepaid
companies, like credit card issuers, will be required to give consumers at
least 21 days to repay their debt before they are charged a late fee. Late fees
must also be “reasonable and proportional” to the violation of the account
terms in question.
- Limited fee and interest charges: During the
first year a credit account is open, total fees for credit features cannot
exceed 25 percent of the credit limit. Generally, card issuers cannot hike the
interest rate on an existing balance unless the cardholder has missed
back-to-back payments. Card issuers may raise the interest rate in advance of
new purchases, but generally must give the consumer 45 days advance notice,
during which time the consumer may cancel the credit account.
The CFPB rule includes other protections to ensure that the prepaid account and the credit feature described above are distinct, such as a:
- Thirty-day waiting period: The CFPB rule
requires companies to wait 30 days after a consumer registers the prepaid
account before offering the credit feature to the consumer. This gives
consumers time to gain experience with the basic prepaid account before
deciding if they want to apply for the credit feature.
- Wall between prepaid funds and credit repayment: Prepaid
companies cannot automatically seize a credit repayment the next time a prepaid
account is loaded with funds. Further, prepaid companies cannot automatically
take funds from the prepaid account to repay the credit when the bill is due
unless the consumer consents. And even so, companies cannot automatically take
funds more than once per month. Payment also cannot be required until 21 days
after the statement is mailed.
The new rule will generally apply to prepaid accounts starting Oct. 1, 2017, though the requirement for submitting agreements to the Bureau takes effect in October 2018. The final rule includes other accommodations in certain situations.
For prepaid rule-related documents: http://www.consumerfinance.gov/prepaid-rule
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is a 21st century agency that helps consumer finance markets work by making rules more effective, by consistently and fairly enforcing those rules, and by empowering consumers to take more control over their economic lives. For more information, visit consumerfinance.gov.