Reactions to Bluebird, the prepaid product from Walmart and American Express announced this week, have been largely muted with a key regulator saying applicable regulations were not yet in place and another consumer card advocate praising the card.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau declined to comment on the new program, citing agency policy not to comment on individual products, and said that it had not finalized its proposed rule on prepaid cards yet.
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Cardhub.com, a website that specializes in evaluating card offers from a consumer perspective, named Bluebird the “Best Overall Prepaid Card” citing Bluebird’s low fee structure, ability to provide cards to family members and ability to use a mobile phone for check deposits, thus avoiding check cashing fees.
“It’s clear that the Bluebird card can be immediately considered a top-tier prepaid card offering,” said CardHub CEO Odysseas Papadimitriou. “The fact that its only major fee is a $2 charge for all but your first monthly ATM withdrawal – which is waived for those enrolled in direct deposit – means that it will be among the least expensive prepaid cards, depending on how exactly you use it.”
“The ability to load funds via check by taking a picture through Amex’s mobile application also makes it one of the few cards suitable to be an alternative check cashing tool,” Papadimitriou said.
Robert Manning, CEO of the Responsible Debt Relief Institute in Rochester, N.Y., and a critic of previous Walmart efforts to expand its financial service offerings, described Bluebird as an expanded or beefed up version of the Green Dot prepaid card, which Walmart already offers.
Not only does Bluebird offer consumers more ways they can use the card, it also offers them a broader acceptance network as well as one higher on the ladder of perceived value, Manning noted.
But he also pointed out that all such prepaid cards in the past have had consumer problems that had not been readily seen without looking at the details.
“How long can you have money on the card without using it before they take it,” Manning asked. “What happens if there is fraud and you lose the money on the card?”
Walmart and American Express said that the funds put on a Bluebird card will never be taken and that the funds enjoy the same fraud protections as do funds on regular American Express cards and other American Express prepaid cards.
And while the CFPB had no comment on the Bluebird card, Director Richard Cordray, speaking at a hearing on prepaid cards in Durham, N.C., on May 23, 2012, made it clear that the agency was interested in the topic.
“Over the course of this rulemaking, we are going to focus on two key issues: safety and transparency,” Cordray said then. “We believe that innovation can bring great benefits to consumers and can provide those outside the traditional banking system with more access to financial products that meet their needs.
“But we have a duty to make sure these products are safe for consumers and that prepaid card issuers do not make money by relying on tricks or traps that are unsustainable for cardholders. Success in the marketplace is hollow if it comes at the expense of consumers.”