By Candice Choi
NEW YORK–Syndicated radio host Tom Joyner, a popular figure in the black community, is lending his voice to a prepaid card.
The move is bound to raise eyebrows because celebrities have come under fire for backing high-fee cards marketed to low-income groups.
Prepaid cards function much like debit cards, but aren’t tied to bank accounts. Users can load the cards with a desired dollar amount and reload them as needed.
Unlike some other cards on the market, Joyner says his new Reach card has just three clearly disclosed fees: a $9.95 activation fee, an $8.95 monthly fee and $2.50 ATM withdrawal fee.
The Reach card should cost about $120 a year for most users, according to PreCash, the company issuing the card in partnership with Joyner.
The radio host on Tuesday began reading ads for the card on his morning show, which reaches 8 million black listeners a week in more than 100 markets. That’s significant because African Americans are more likely to be unbanked or underbanked, meaning they avoid traditional banking services in favor of alternatives such as check cashing and payday loans.
The Reach card was designed specifically with Joyner’s listeners in mind, said Mia Mends, general manager of prepaid debit for PreCash. “We don’t assume all of them are unbanked or underbanked, but there’s probably some overlap.”
Prepaid cards are popular among the unbanked because they offer the conveniences of a debit or credit card. But the cards can come with numerous fees which may surprise users.
For instance, some cards charge $1 per minute for customer service calls. Others charge $1 every time users swipe cards at the register.
Despite the costs, issuers say prepaid cards offer greater financial control for those who want to avoid racking up credit card debt or who regularly incur checking overdraft fees.
“There’s really no free banking for people who can’t meet the balance minimums required by banks,” Mends said.
She noted that multiple overdraft fees can also sharply drive up the costs of bank accounts, resulting in fees reaching “thousands of dollars a year” for some individuals.
Such differences in banking habits are part of why head-to-head cost comparisons between checking accounts and prepaid cards are never simple. An FDIC study found a small percentage of customers account for the majority of overdraft fees. And they tend to be repeat offenders. Often at $39 per violation, the fees can add up quickly. Further complicating matters, the costs of using a prepaid card can vary widely depending on the card.
The prepaid card industry is still relatively young, but Joyner isn’t the first big name to venture into the market.
Hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons in 2003 established the RushCard, which he says costs users about $200 a year. As with the Reach card, Simmons says the RushCard remains a cheaper alternative for those who would otherwise rack up high penalty fees.
One celebrity-endorsed card that generated sharp criticism was the Kardashian Kard, which bore the image of the reality TV sisters. But the trio, Kim, Khloe and Kourtney, quickly cut ties with the card when its high fees were slammed by consumer groups.
Before it was taken off the market last month, the Kardashian Kard cost $59.95 or six months, or $99.95 for 12 months.
That translates to between about $8 to $10 per month. But there were numerous other fees for balance inquiries, ATM withdrawals, customer service calls and cancellation.
“This is why we’re so baffled as to why customers think these (prepaid) cards are cheaper than a bank account,” said Suzanne Martindale, an attorney and associate policy analyst with Consumers Union, an advocacy group.
Martindale also notes that prepaid cards don’t always offer the same loss or theft protections that come with debit and credit cards.
There’s also a new regulation preventing banks from automatically enrolling customers in overdraft programs. That should make it easy for account holders to avoid the fees often cited by prepaid card issuers, she said.
However, Martindale acknowledges that some have few options beyond prepaid cards. Because of a poor financial history, they may not be able to get a bank account.
But even then, she said consumers need to be aware of the costs that come with prepaid cards.