This expansion of prepaid cards is why consumers need to be familiar with the cards and their fees.

A few recent prepaid card surveys reveal plenty of fees.

"That's why for the majority of people, low-cost and free checking accounts remain your better options," says McBride, who added that you can still find those at credit unions and community banks.

Bankrate released a survey of the top 18 prepaid cards last week and found that seven of them assess an activation fee ranging from $3 to $14.95. A handful charge from 49 cents to $2 each time the card is used to make a purchase. More than half hit customers with a $1 to $5.95 fee to get a statement in the mail. And one-third charge $1.95 to $5.95 after a certain number of months of inactivity.

Meanwhile, Consumer Action, which surveyed 28 cards, found that 20 of them carry a monthly maintenance fee. The highest: $14.95 assessed by READYdebit Visa Prepaid Platinum.

Use the card to make a cash withdrawal from an ATM outside the issuer's network and the fee ranges from $1.95 to $3, Consumer Action found. And a handful of cards charge to reload money.

Ten cards charge 50 cents to $2 to talk to a customer service agent, Consumer Action reported. Two charge 50 cents for automated help.

"Many of the cards have ways to avoid fees," says Susswein, adding that some even list these methods on their disclosures.

For instance, you can avoid a fee for checking the card balance at the ATM by looking up the information online or setting up text alerts when the balance falls to a certain level, Susswein says.

Jennifer Tramontana, a spokeswoman for the Network Branded Prepaid Card Association, notes that the costs associated with the cards have been coming down as more players enter the market.

You can dig into card disclosures to uncover fees, or check out NerdWallet.com, which compares more than 60 prepaid cards. That includes the new Chase Liquid prepaid card, described by NerdWallet as one of the cheapest cards.

The website allows you to plug in how you expect to use the plastic — such as number of monthly ATM withdrawals, bill payments and balance inquiries — and then lists the least expensive cards for you. NerdWallet also compares prepaid cards with checking accounts.

Consumer advocates have concerns about prepaid cards besides fees.

Prepaid cards, with some exceptions, don't have the regulatory protections of debit cards that limit the consumer's liability if a card is lost or stolen, Susswein says. While issuers say they will extend this protection to prepaid cards, they can always change their minds, she says.

And a prepaid card won't help you build a credit history because it's cash, not credit.

Customers who develop a good record with the American Express prepaid card, however, may be invited to apply for a charge card that must be paid off monthly. And a charge card can help you build a credit history.

If you still think a prepaid card will work for you, take the time to research different cards. Given the wide variety of fees, it will be well worth the time.

eileen.ambrose@baltsun.com

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