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Chicago Transit Authority Riders To Use New Ventra Card Starting This Summer

Ventra logo Last month, the CBS television network affiliate in Chicago reported about a new fare card to be offered this summer in Chicago by the local public transit authority. The news report stated:

"... one of the companies behind the new card gets an F rating from the Better Business Bureau... It will be offered by Money Network, which is owned by First Data. Money Network currently has an F rating with the BBB."

Reportedly, the "F" rating was based on complaints by consumers since 2010. Chicago officials said that the new Ventra fare system will save the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) about $50 million during its 12-year contract with Money Network.

The new Ventra fare card will be available for Chicago consumers during the summer of 2013. Consumers will have the option to use the Ventra card to pay for CTA fares, or to opt in and also use it as a prepaid debit card to pay for purchases at local retail stores. By 2014, the CTA will migrate fully from the current Chicago Card and Chicago Card Plus payment methods to the new Ventra system. In the future, consumers will also be able to pay using their smart phones.

I visited the Ventra Chicago website to learn more. The website provides some information about this new fare and prepaid card:

"Cards are issued by MetaBankā„¢, Member FDIC, pursuant to license by MasterCard International Incorporated. MasterCard and the MasterCard Brand Mark are registered trademarks of MasterCard International Incorporated."

This means that both the CTA and its riders will be doing business with MetaBank. Consumers that activate the prepaid debit option on their Ventra card will definitely want to know what bank is used, especially if there are problems or need help. (What could go wrong with a prepaid card? Read parts 1 and 2 about a consumer's experience with a healthcare prepaid card.) Since Money Network is a Ventra vendor, it means that Money Network (e.g., First Data Corp.) will likely perform the payment transaction processing.

You never heard of MetaBank? There is a pretty useful summary of MetaBank at the GetDebit website:

Summary of MetaBank at GetDebit.com

After reading the Ventra Chicago website, I also expected to find the full terms and conditions (e.g., contract) that applies when consumers opt-in to use the prepaid debit option with their Ventra Chicago card. In my experience, details matter with any prepaid card. Often, prepaid cards contain minimums, limits, and/or several fees (e.g., to load money onto the prepaid card, or make cash withdrawals at certain bank ATM network machines). Additional fees may apply if you use the prepaid card at a different ATM network.

In January, this blog reviewed the new AAA card. Like the coming Ventra Chicago card, AAA members can use their new AAA card as an identification card for towing services and discounts, or opt in and activate the prepaid debit option to use the card to make purchases at retail stores. The new AAA prepaid card has a $25.00 minimum to load money onto it, and a maximum monthly limit of $2,500 (or a $10,000 max with direct deposit). With the new AAA prepaid card, each month only the first ATM cash withdrawal is free, and all other ATM withdrawals cost $2.00 each. And, you have to use it at American Express network ATM machines.

I wanted to see if there were similar conditions with the new Ventra Chicago card, but the website didn't say. This is the type of information informed consumers look for, since there are legal differences and rights consumers have with prepaid cards compared to both credit- and debit cards. Informed consumers want to know their rights and specific rules, especially about replacing the funds on lost/stolen Ventra cards. Hopefully, CTA officials will update the Ventra Chicago website soon with the appropriate detailed information, so Chicago-area consumers can make informed choices.

I visited the BBB website to see if its rating of Money Network had changed since last month. It had and is now rated B+:

BBB rating of Money Network

You don't need to be a rock scientist to see that the Ventra Chicago business model is one that can be replicated with public transit systems in other cities across the country. As each system makes decisions about the payment methods they will use, transparency is critical. It is important for transit systems to provide consumers with as much choice, freedom, and privacy as possible with payment options, while minimizing fees and surcharges.

What else is going on here? As I see it, several things. First, banks are trying to capture more customers by targeting both consumers who don't have a bank account (called the "unbanked" in industry jargon), and consumers have a single bank account (e.g., checking or a savings but not both are called the "underbanked) with prepaid card pitches. Second, banking industry research has found that consumers who have used debit cards and were burned with multiple overdraft fees, now view prepaid cards as a way to avoid high overdraft fees. So, banks have targeted these consumers, too, with prepaid card pitches directly or through intermediaries (e.g., government, employers). These consumers often don't realize the limits, minimums, fees, and surcharges that often are included with prepaid cards.

Third, given current technologies it is fairly easy to make plastic identification cards perform the traditional functions plus act as a prepaid debit card. That's why you now see prepaid cards to receive government benefits, and with employer healthcare FSA programs. Fourth, it is no secret that banks perform huge data collection of consumers' purchases with all types of plastic in your wallet or purse: debit cards, credit cards, and prepaid cards. Banks analyze and sell your purchases with other businesses including data brokers. So, if you want privacy, keep using cash.

My advice to consumers is this: anytime a bank or company serves up a strong "convenience" pitch with a prepaid debit card, take the time to read closely the contractl details (e.g., often called the Terms and Conditions), the schedule of fees, and the privacy policy. Those documents will indicate what protections and rights you have (or don't have), and the costs. And, there are five things you should know about prepaid cards.

What is your opinion of Ventra Chicago? Of MetaBank? Of Money Network?

Comments

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George

A March 13, 2013 update:

http://chicago.cbslocal.com/2013/03/13/cta-says-new-ventra-system-wont-cost-riders-extra/
CTA Says Ventra System Won't Cost Riders Extra

A March 14, 2013 update:

http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/chi-cta-board-spars-over-cost-of-new-fare-plan-20130313,0,995083.story
CTA OK's New Fare Payment Plan Despite Questions

If you read both articles closely, you'll notice several Ventra fees mentioned:
- $5 monthly inactivity fee
- $5 processing fee

Like I wrote in the above article, it is important for consumers to closely read the terms and conditions and fee schedule policies with any prepaid debit card. There will likely be other fees embedded, as the banks take their cut.

George
Editor
http://ivebeenmugged.typepad.com

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