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 cost him $1.50.
For hundreds of thousands of workers losing their jobs during the recession, there’s a new twist to their financial pain: Even when they’re collecting unemployment benefits, they’re 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’s 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. “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.”
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’s spent. The banks and credit card companies also get roughly 1 percent 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’s difficult to estimate the profits because they depend on how often recipients use their cards and where they use them.
Another 10 states – including the unemployment hot spots of California, Florida and South Carolina – are considering such programs or have signed contracts. The remainder still use traditional checks or direct deposit.
With the national unemployment rate now at 7.6 percent, the market for bank-issued unemployment cards is booming. In 2003, states paid only $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, a financial industry consulting firm.