Better Than Cash? Global Proliferation of Debit and Prepaid Cards and Consumer Protection Policy


A global deluge of debit cards and prepaid cards – payment cards that do not require consumers to qualify for credit – is rapidly making electronic payment systems accessible to much of the world’s population that previously paid in cash for goods and services. The global proliferation of payment cards is fraught with both risk and promise for consumers.

The billions of people of low to moderate incomes who are being hurled from a cash economy into the era of electronic payments in emerging economies by the proliferation of debit and prepaid cards are particularly vulnerable to abuses by banks and merchants. Unregulated private lawmaking by payment card associations and card issuers will not ensure that consumers are treated fairly, due to their countervailing incentives to attract merchants into their payment networks. Technological solutions promote efficiency and limit abuse, but cannot ensure fair resolution of consumer-merchant disputes. Payment card associations such as Visa and MasterCard operate chargeback systems for resolving disputes, but chargeback systems cannot function in cash economies without merchants’ consent, because cash transactions are usually anonymous, evidenced at most by a receipt, and do not involve an intermediary.

However, while the lack of anonymity inherent in the use of payment cards entails risk for consumer privacy, it also makes possible greater transparency in payment systems. As billions of vulnerable consumers become connected to electronic payment systems, chargeback systems become a possible means of protecting them from merchant misconduct. Moreover, this lack of anonymity makes possible new ways of protecting consumers, such as disclosure to consumers of outcomes of the Visa and MasterCard chargeback systems through merchant ratings such as those posted on eBay.

There is a risk that nations with emerging economies will uncritically emulate regimes of consumer protection adopted in the United States and Europe. These regimes in many respects lack a consistent conceptual foundation and fail to address problems, such as bank fees, access to banking services and payment system insolvency, that are poorly addressed in developed countries if they are addressed at all. For example, debit and prepaid card transactions are both a convenient means of obtaining cash and a substitute for cash, but this does not justify denying chargeback rights to consumers who use debit and prepaid cards, as if they had paid in cash.

Prior scholarship on payment cards has suffered from the assumption that American use of credit cards is normative. This article demonstrates that it is a global anomaly; most consumers worldwide use payment cards for convenience rather than a source of long-term credit, and that is why debit cards have become popular so quickly. Moreover, fees and charges imposed on consumers for payment card services are one of the most prolific sources of consumer complaints. Fee regulation should be regarded as a legitimate part of payments law in scholarship on the subject, and should not be ignored in establishing a regulatory system to govern debit and prepaid cards.


Banking and Finance Law | Commercial Law | Comparative and Foreign Law | Consumer Protection Law | Law and Economics

Date of this Version

September 2005