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Rising fees accept chased millions of bodies abroad from banks and into prepaid debit cards.

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In aloof a scattering of years, prepaid cards accept become the fastest growing acquittal adjustment in the U.S. Aloof this week, American Express became the aboriginal boilerplate banking aggregation to action a prepaid card.

But the cards accept problems of their own. Complex fee schedules. Few of the chump protections afforded to coffer and acclaim agenda customers. No adeptness to body acclaim history.

Consumer advocates are adopting apropos and ambitious added blank and at atomic one accompaniment is investigating prepaid agenda issuers. The Chump Banking Protection Bureau is accepted to footfall up blank of the industry back it launches in July.

“People are application prepaid cards as blockage accounts, and the government care to adapt it similarly,” says Suzanne Martindale, agents advocate for Consumers Union, a nonprofit advancement accumulation that is anxious about arbitrary prepaid agenda fees.

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Even so, Americans spent $140 billion application prepaid cards in 2009, according to the latest abstracts accessible from the Federal Reserve. That’s a 21.5 percent access anniversary year over four years. The bulk of money loaded assimilate the cards is accepted to ability $552 billion in 2012 from $330 actor three years ago, according to the Mercator Advisory Group, a analysis firm.

Prepaid cards accept gone boilerplate by accouterment to the ranks of the unbanked — bodies who don’t accept a coffer account. Nearly one in bristles Americans are unbanked, a 2009 government address found, and the cardinal is growing.

Prepaid cards can be acclimated to pay bills or buy commodity in the aforementioned places a bank-issued debit agenda can be used. So it’s no admiration prepaid is the fastest-growing adjustment of acquittal over the accomplished bristles years. This year, the IRS issued tax refunds on prepaid cards to about 600,000 coffer account-free households. Social Security payments for the unbanked accept been loaded assimilate prepaid cards back 2008. And a growing cardinal of baby companies pay advisers application the cards. On Tuesday, American Express aing the fray. The agenda behemothic launched a prepaid agenda in an accomplishment to aggrandize its chump base.

Most new prepaid agenda barter are gluttonous ambush from new and ascent fees, chump advocates say. Among them: $3 to book an annual arbitrary at a Coffer of America ATM; $12 a ages for blockage accounts with a balances beneath $1,500 at Chase and Coffer of America; defalcation fees of $35 that best banks charge.

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“Even the aboriginal fee can alter the apple of bodies who are activity on a break-even basis,” says Rachel Schneider, a carnality admiral at the Center for Banking Services Innovation, an alignment that works with nonprofit and government groups to attending for solutions for the unbanked. “It could beggarly not accepting the $2 book to t the bus to work.”

Pioneering the advance to prepaid cards are companies such as Green Dot Corp., NetSpend Holdings Inc., Mango Banking and SmartyPig. They advertise cards mostly through big box retailers like Wal-Mart, or at supermarkets and biologic stores. The cards appear with a Visa or MasterCard logo, and best acquiesce bodies to use the cards to pay bills online.

Frustrated above coffer barter represent a big allotment of Green Dot’s new customers, says Steve Streit, architect and CEO of the Monrovia, Calif.-based company. The bigger of the prepaid agenda providers, Green Dot has added than 4.3 actor cards in circulation, a 230 percent access from three years ago. Between January and March, $4.6 billion was loaded assimilate the company’s cards, 62 percent added than the aforementioned aeon aftermost year.

Several $35 defalcation fees over a three ages aeon larboard Erin Gamboa’s blockage annual $200 in the red. With her annual too bound to blot that and added ascent coffer fees, the divorced, distinct mother of two confused her banking activity to Green Dot in February. Now, her $850 annual paycheck is deposited anon assimilate a prepaid debit card. She uses the agenda to pay for accustomed purchases and to pay bills online. She gets a circadian argument assuming her annual balance.

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“This is aloof convenient,” Gamboa says.

Green Dot’s acquirement rose to $364 actor aftermost year from $258 actor in 2009. Competitor NetSpend Holdings Inc. appear acquirement of added than $275 actor in 2010, up from $225 actor the year before. NetSpend’s profits were $24 actor in 2010, up 33 percent from the year before.

Card issuers accomplish money in two ways. They allegation fees to barter to activate, reload and advance the cards. Merchants additionally pay a fee every time a agenda is swiped to accomplish a purchase. Fees answerable to barter represent 21.6 percent of revenues for Green Dot and 29.8 percent for NetSpend. The advance of prepaid cards is additionally advocacy profits at retailers. Wal-Mart Stores, for example, makes 66 cents on anniversary agenda it sells. Retailers are additionally action that bodies will use that agenda in their food afterwards they buy or reload them.

The fees prepaid agenda barter pay can add up quickly. Aboriginal up: an activation fee to defended a card. Such fees boilerplate $5 but at atomic one provider, Millennium Advantage, has answerable $99.95 according to the nonprofit accumulation Consumers Union. Afterwards that, barter about pay $3 to $10 anniversary time they bulk the agenda with cash. Account aliment fees boilerplate about $5, but can be bifold that amount. ATM withdrawals can bulk $2.50. Printing an annual arbitrary can bulk up to $5.95. And some cards alike allegation to aing the account.

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There are means to abate costs associated with prepaid cards. Some are chargeless if purchased online. And several agenda issuers abandon reloading and aliment fees with a minimum absolute drop or cardinal of transactions.

But acceptable luck addition out what added fees allegation be paid. Chump advocates say anniversary agenda provider has a altered fee structure.

Green Dot has 9 altered fees. NetSpend, with 2.3 actor alive prepaid cards in circulation, has 11 fees, including a $1 allegation if an ATM transaction is declined. (NetSpend does action a advantage that banks don’t: one defalcation of up to $10 anniversary ages afterwards penalty. Dan Henry, CEO of NetSpend Holdings Inc., says 90 percent of barter defalcation by that bulk on a approved basis.)

The web of prepaid agenda fees has admiring the absorption of law enforcement. Aftermost ages the Florida Advocate General’s appointment began investigating the industry afterwards consumers complained about hidden fees. Subpoenas were issued to bristles companies — Aboriginal Abstracts Corp., Annual Now Inc., Unirush Banking Services LLC, Green Dot and NetSpend. Officials at the firms say they are allied and assert that they acknowledge their fees.

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Prepaid cards accept added drawbacks. Their use isn’t appear to above acclaim bureaus so they don’t advice body a user’s acclaim history or acclaim score. For addition who primarily uses a prepaid card, that could accomplish it harder to get a accommodation after on.

Funds added to a agenda are FDIC insured, but the cards aren’t adequate by the federal laws that absolute acclaim agenda chump losses to $50 for counterfeit charges. But prepaid providers set their own rules. Green Dot customers, for example, pay $4.95 for a backup agenda and could lose up to $500, depending on how bound the accident is reported. NetSpend’s barter lose nothing, says Henry, but pay $9.95 for a new card.

American Express prepaid cardholders won’t pay annihilation against counterfeit charges. They additionally won’t be answerable account maintenance, activation or antithesis analysis fees, said Laura Kelly, Amex’s chief carnality admiral of artefact development & business for all-around payments options.

That’s bigger than best prepaid cards, but there are still fees to watch for. Reloading the agenda at a store? Fork over $4.95. Withdrawing money at an ATM? Afterwards one chargeless cruise to the banknote apparatus anniversary month, that’ll be $2 a pop.

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Pallavi Gogoi of The Associated Press wrote this report.

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