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Banks charge fees to jobless paid benefits via debit cards


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POSTED: Friday, February 20, 2009

First, Arthur Santa-Maria called Bank of America to ask how to check the balance of his new unemployment benefits debit card. The bank charged him 50 cents.

He chose not to complain. That would have cost another 50 cents.

So he took out some of the money and then decided to pull out the rest. But that made two withdrawals on the same day, and that was $1.50.

For hundreds of thousands of workers losing their jobs during the recession, there is a new twist to their financial pain: Even when they are collecting unemployment benefits, they are paying the bank just to get the money - or even to call customer service to complain about it.

Thirty states have struck such deals with banks that include Citigroup Inc., Bank of America Corp., JP Morgan Chase and US Bancorp, an Associated Press review of the agreements found. All the programs carry fees, and in several states the unemployed have no choice but to use the debit cards. Some banks even charge overdraft fees of up to $20 - even though they could decline charges for more than what is on the card.

“;They're trying to use my money to make money,”; said Santa-Maria, a laid-off engineer who lives just outside Albuquerque, N.M. “;I just see banks trying to make that 50 cents or a buck and a half when I should be given the service for free.”;

Hawaii still distributes unemployment benefits via check, but it is considering the use of bank debit cards.

“;We've been looking into that, but we haven't come to a final decision on the matter,”; Darwin Ching, director of the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, said yesterday. “;We were aware of those types of charges, and that's one of the reasons we haven't acted on it yet.”;

The banks say their programs offer convenience. They also provide at least one way to tap the money at no charge, such as using a single free withdrawal to get all the cash at once from a bank teller. But the banks benefit from human nature, as people end up treating the cards like all the other plastic in their wallets.

Some banks, depending on the agreement negotiated with each state, also make money on the interest they earn after the state deposits the money and before it is spent. The banks and credit card companies also get roughly 1 to 3 percent off the top of each transaction made with the cards.

“;It's a racket. It's a scam,”; said Rachel Davis, a 38-year-old dental technician from St. Louis who was laid off in October. Davis was given a MasterCard issued through Central Bank of Jefferson City and recently paid $6 to make two $40 withdrawals.

Neither banks nor credit card companies will say how much money they are making off the programs, or what proportion of the revenue comes from user versus merchant fees or interest. It is difficult to estimate the profits because they depend on how often recipients use their cards and where they use them.

But the potential is clear.

In Missouri, for instance, 94,883 people claimed unemployment benefits through debit cards from Central Bank. Analysts say a recipient uses a card an average of six to 10 times a month. If each cardholder makes three withdrawals at an out-of-network ATM, at a fee of $1.75, the bank would collect nearly $500,000. If half of the cardholders also call customer service three times in any given week, the bank's revenue would jump to more than $521,000. That would yield $6.3 million a year.

Rachel Storch, a Democratic state representative, received a wave of complaints about the fees from autoworkers laid off from a suburban St. Louis Chrysler plant. She urged Gov. Jay Nixon to review the state's contract with Central Bank with an eye toward reducing the fees.

“;I think the contract is unfair and potentially illegal to unemployment recipients,”; she said.

Along with the 30 states now using the cards, another 10 states are considering such programs or have signed contracts.

With the national unemployment rate now at 7.6 percent, the market for bank-issued unemployment cards is booming. In 2003, states paid $4 million of unemployment insurance through debit cards. By 2007 it had ballooned to $2.8 billion, and by 2010 it will likely rise to $10.5 billion, according to a study conducted by Mercator Advisory Group.

The stimulus plan signed by President Barack Obama this week will increase federal unemployment benefits by $40 billion this year. Subsequently, there will be more money from which banks can collect fees. The Department of Labor allows the fees as long as states create a way for recipients to get their money for free, spokeswoman Suzy Bohnert said.

“;Beyond that, the individual decides how to manage his drawdowns using the debit card,”; she said in an e-mail.