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The Fine Print

Federal stimulus money delivered via debit cards sows confusion

Irene Fairley assumed the VISA card she got in the mail was a scam. But it carried her stimulus payment from the federal government.
Irene Fairley assumed the VISA card she got in the mail was a scam. But it carried her stimulus payment from the federal government.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Irene Fairley noticed a plain-looking envelope as she sorted mail at her Belmont home.

She tore it open to find a VISA debit card embossed with her name and stamped with a 2024 expiration date. It wasn’t anything she expected or wanted; probably junk mail or a scam, she figured.

She was about to toss it in the trash but remembered she hadn’t received her government stimulus payment. The letter accompanying the card said it was her “economic impact payment” and bore the seal of the Department of the Treasury.

Still, she was confused. The card and letter came from something called “Money Network Cardholder Services,” with a PO Box in Omaha, Neb., as a return address. The letter contained a profusion of fine print, plus a schedule of fees.


“Fees?” Fairley wondered. “Fees on a stimulus payment?”

Fairley, a retired Northeastern University professor, recalled a recent column I wrote about scam artists, stolen identities, and pilfered unemployment benefits.

“Might you look into it?” she asked in an e-mail to me. “I earned a PhD in linguistics from Harvard University and I’m still puzzled by it.”

Let this be a warning: VISA debit cards like Fairley’s are to be taken seriously. The government sent out four million of them, representing about 2.5 percent of all stimulus payments. Everybody else got theirs by direct deposit into a bank account or by paper check.

People with incomes of $75,000 or less got (or are getting) $1,200; the amount for higher-income people diminishes gradually as income rises, and then is phased out completely for those earning $100,000 or more.

I heard complaints from half a dozen confused people. There are things you should know.

Q. I threw my card away. What can I do to get my money now?

A. Call 800-240-8100 for a free replacement, according to directions at eipcard.com. Listen for the prompt to report a lost or stolen card. You get one free replacement card. After that, it’s $7.50 per card.


Q. One thing that threw me off when the card arrived is that it’s issued from a private bank authorized to charge fees. I expected something directly from the government.

A. The Treasury Department, which is administering the stimulus program, hired MetaBank after a competitive selection process. MetaBank has developed debit cards for the government to make various payments, dating back to 2016. MetaBank runs Money Network Cardholder Services.

Q. What about the fees?

A. The government apparently allows MetaBank to charge fees as part of its compensation for operating the debit card program. You can use the card anywhere that takes a VISA debit card, including ATMs, stores, online, and by phone. (The card has both a magnetic stripe and a chip.) There are no charges for purchases. But withdrawals at an ATM come with a $2 fee, after the first free withdrawal. Checking your balance at an ATM costs 25 cents. And withdrawals at a bank teller’s window cost $5, after the first free one.

Q. What kind of security comes with the card?

A. When you call to activate it (800-240-8100) you must set up a personal identification number (PIN). You may need that PIN when making purchases or obtaining cash back during a purchase, depending on what the merchant requires.


Q. Why did I receive a debit card instead of a direct deposit or paper check?

A. The Treasury Department says debit cards were used for recipients who have no bank account or whose bank account information was unknown to the IRS.

Q. Is the debit card linked to my bank account?

A. No, the card is separate from any bank account you may have. But you can withdraw the balance and deposit it into you bank account.

Q. Why didn’t my debit card come with a better explanation of what it was?

A. Fairley said she got a letter from “the White House” two weeks after receiving the VISA card that specified the amount she received and the means of payment (debit card).

The first letter that came with the card did not tell her how much she was receiving but did say the balance could be checked via an app, online, or by phone.

The second letter from the White House, received by millions of Americans, was conspicuously signed by President Trump.

Do the right thing, Comcast

Comcast and other cable companies continue to charge subscribers almost $9 a month for broadcasts of regional sports, even though there have been no live professional sports shown since March.

And whether you get a refund by calling Comcast to complain continues to be a hit-or-miss proposition (mostly miss, I fear).

“After seeing your initial column, I called Comcast and received an upfront, 6-month credit,” one reader wrote last week. “The agent even volunteered that I should call back for another credit in December if live sports aren’t back on TV by then.”


Another reader wrote: “I was told by the (snarky) service rep that an email was sent out telling them to not to give refunds for that fee.”

Comcast has promised to provide “rebates or other adjustments” to customers when the time is right.

What’s wrong with now, when struggling people could use a break?

Got a problem? Send your consumer issue to sean.murphy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.