Despite high fees, check cashers seen as part of community, customers say

From behind the Plexiglas window at the back of his Brooklyn Park shop, Charlie Ward spotted one of his regular customers ambling toward him.

"He's heerrre!" exclaimed Ward, arms out to 80-year-old Roy Wasmus, who has been coming to the Brooklyn Park check casher for close to 30 years, first to cash his paychecks from General Motors and now for $40 money orders.

More than a quarter of Baltimore residents don't have bank accounts or, like Wasmus, don't use them exclusively. Instead, they manage their finances through check cashers like Charlie Ward's and with other so-called alternative financial services such as prepaid cards.

Check cashers — distinct from payday lenders — typically also allow customers to pay bills, get money orders and wire money, which makes them particularly popular in immigrant areas.

For years, consumer advocates criticized check cashers as part of the problem in low-income neighborhoods, saying they exploit residents by charging high fees and perpetuate poor financial habits. Yet, despite those fees, a growing body of research suggests their customers prefer check cashers to banks for their familiarity, convenience and simplicity. Some use check cashers because they can't qualify for a bank account.

But as much as check cashers fill a community need, consumer advocates and bankers argue their popularity highlights the need for better financial education so people become more financially stable and understand the role of bank accounts in establishing credit, securing loans and saving money.

Check cashers proliferated after the 1980s when bank deregulation prompted a wave of consolidation that closed many branches, particularly in low-income neighborhoods. As of June, there were 421 licensed check cashing businesses in Maryland, up from 340 the year before but down from 517 in 2010, according to state data.

They can be found mostly in low-income neighborhoods, regardless of their racial or ethnic make-up.

"Banking has always been about a relationship," said Cassandra Jones Havard, a law professor at University of Baltimore who studies the financial services industry. "So much of what happens with money is cultural and ingrained."

Many customers of Charlie Ward's — a yellow shoebox of a shop on a residential street in this South Baltimore neighborhood — don't go there simply because they don't have a better option. In fact, Ward estimates that between 30 percent and 40 percent of them have bank accounts.

They prefer Ward, with his jovial greetings, to the library-quiet bank branches where tellers address people as "sir" and "ma'am," not only because it's polite but because they don't always recognize their customers.

"Why do I come here? Because I like him, OK?" Wasmus said. "He's like me — he's got a bad leg, his hair is kinda receding like mine."

"Besides," he added, "it's close to home."

Ward, who opened shop in 1975, is aware of his industry's reputation for being predatory, but he thinks it's unfounded.

"We're better than the banks," Ward said. "For a lot of people we're just a lot more reasonably priced — and Lord knows we try to be a lot friendlier than any of the banks."

Check cashers are licensed by the state, which caps the fees they can charge. Charlie Ward's charges between 1.5 percent and 2 percent to cash a check over $100. Checks under $100 are $1. Money orders are a quarter and it's $2 to load a prepaid card.

He also sells bus passes, does wire transfers and can pay customers' utility bills. He charges fees to cover his costs and risks and to make a profit. The fee for each service is detailed in bold font on fliers tacked above the counter.

"Go into a bank and you don't see anything like that," said Lisa J. Servon, a professor of city planning at the University of Pennsylvania, who worked as a clerk at a check cashing business in the South Bronx for four months to study customers' habits. "Even if you do open a checking account, you have a 45-page disclosure."

People who live from one paycheck to the next are willing to pay those fees because they often can't wait the days it takes for a check to clear at the bank and can't risk overdraft fees, which are often more expensive than what it costs to cash a check, Servon said.

According to the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the median bank overdraft fee is $34. The fees typically are incurred for each item that bounces, which can quickly add up. While banks don't charge fees for depositing checks, many do charge maintenance fees for accounts that fall below a minimum balance, which can be difficult to maintain for someone living paycheck to paycheck or with irregular income.

Banks argue their fees are necessary to cover the cost of offering services like checking accounts and debit cards, but they've also boosted bank profits in recent years.

Most banks offer low or no-minimum balance accounts for customers who have their paychecks directly deposited into the account, said Kathleen M. Murphy, president and CEO of the Maryland Bankers Association.

With direct deposit, people don't have to wait for their check to clear because the money is instantly available, she said. Online and mobile banking also make banks more accessible to people who don't live near — or don't want to go to — a brick-and-mortar branch.

"The thing a branch provides is the opportunity to talk face-to-face to someone," Murphy said. "I think the most important thing is for individuals and businesses to fully understand what the array of options are for them, and that's one thing you can do when you're visiting face to face."

Even though Jessica Fields has a bank account for direct deposit from her job as a manager at McDonald's, she cashes other checks at Charlie Ward's.

"It's OK," the 29-year-old said of her bank. "But all the fees, man, sometimes it's like, 'What the hell's this fee even for?'"

Morgan State University recently released a report, funded by Master Your Card, MasterCard's financial education arm, that focused on so-called financial deserts, places that have adopted their own financial norms in the absence of banks.

"These are not places where there's dead space and no economic viability, it's just that the nature of that economic viability is not mainstream," said Kim Dobson Sydnor, dean of Morgan's School of Community Health and Policy, and the report's author.

Sydnor said she thinks check cashers are detrimental to the people who use them and their communities. But when the researchers conducted focus groups in Baltimore neighborhoods without banks, they found that even though people generally described such alternative financial centers as "sharks" many still preferred them to banks, which they described as untrustworthy and unfriendly.

The state's Office of the Commissioner of Financial Regulation receives relatively few complaints about check cashers. Out of 1,154 complaints about banks, collection agencies, credit reporting agencies, payday lenders and other financial service providers regulated by the office in fiscal 2016, only four were about check cashers, said Commissioner Gordon Cooley.

Consumer advocates are more critical of payday lenders, which offer short-term loans as advances on customers' paychecks, charging high interest rates. While Maryland allows payday lending, the state caps the interest rates at level lower than other states.

As researchers learn more about why people use alternative financial service centers, they are looking for new approaches to improving financial well-being that could be more effective than simply trying to get people to switch from check cashers to checking accounts.

"There's a correlation between people who have checking accounts and who use them, and people who have savings and good credit history. We all assumed that because there was a correlation, that if we got people into bank accounts they would be better off," said Rachel Schneider, a senior vice president of the Center for Financial Services Innovation and the co-author of a forthcoming book about financial habits. "I am currently deeply skeptical about that correlation."

Servon suggested that check cashers "are sometimes the most financially healthy choice for people given their particular situation."

Still, many consumer advocates and bankers encourage people to open bank accounts, where the money is protected and can earn interest, and which help people establish credit, qualify for loans and manage their money.

People should aspire to have a bank account, said Joseph Haskins Jr., CEO of Harbor Bank of Maryland.

"If we're going to help change outcomes, it's a little bit of the tough love," Haskins said. "You've got to have someone see they're operating in a problematic way and they've got to change their habits, their patterns."

The Baltimore-based bank routinely turns down potential customers who have bad credit or other financial offenses that make them too risky to take on as customers.

For people who want to get in better financial shape, Harbor offers assistance by holding information sessions at block parties, community centers and other neighborhood gathering places.

One time, Haskins went to a local church, where a group of 60 men fired off complaints and accusations about being charged overdraft fees, shut out of accounts and turned down for loans. But after about a half-hour, Haskins said, he was able to talk to the group about how to clean up their credit scores, the importance of paying bills on time and what to look for in a loan.

"You've got to get out into the community, speak to them in their environment — not your environment," he said.

The Baltimore CASH Campaign, a consumer finance nonprofit that works in the city to improve the financial well being of low-income residents, wants the city to establish a financial empowerment office that would work with nonprofits and financial partners to integrate personal finance skills into its other community initiatives. For example, job training programs could include lessons on how to fill out a W-2 form and set up direct deposit to a bank account for paychecks.

"It's a broader conversation beyond just banking," said Sara Johnson, the organization's director.

The goal, she said, would be to teach people how to manage their money better, so they won't need to rely on cash checkers and eventually could open a bank account.

"Everyone who cares about inequality more broadly should be adding this to their list of what's broken about our economic system right now," Schneider said. "This lack of access to a stable financial life is, I believe, what's fueling the economically driven anger just as much as income or wealth disparities."

Still, habits can be hard to change.

Shortly after 5 p.m. on a recent Friday, Damien Moulden, 36, came through Charlie Ward's in his work overalls and orange reflective vest, just like he's done countless other Fridays.

He lives in Pasadena now and has a bank account, but got a new job building and servicing outdoor fountains that doesn't offer direct deposit. To be honest, Moulden said, even if direct deposit was an option he'd probably be at Ward's all the same.

"I've been coming here so long," he said. "It's just what I do."

sarah.gantz@baltsun.com

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