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The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is “putting the prepaid industry on notice that companies will face the consequences if consumers are denied access to their money or to the services they pay for and on which they have the right to depend”, writes Banking Technology‘s sister publication Paybefore.

In its first enforcement action against prepaid providers, the bureau has announced that UniRush and Mastercard will pay a combined $13 million for a 2015 service disruption that left cardholders without access to their funds.

The two companies will pay $10 million in restitution and $3 million in fines to the CFPB’s civil penalty fund for what the consumer watchdog called “a rash of preventable failures” that left many RushCard accountholders unable to access funds, pay bills and receive direct deposits to their accounts for several days, according to the consent order. The outage was the result of a technical glitch that occurred during RushCard’s migration to Mastercard’s Payments Transactions Services processing platform.

Under terms of the consent order, UniRush and Mastercard neither admitted nor denied any of the allegations brought forth by the CFPB.

“Mastercard and UniRush’s failures cut off tens of thousands of vulnerable consumers from their own money and threw some into a personal financial crisis,” CFPB director Richard Cordray said in an announcement. “The companies must set things right for consumers and make sure such devastating service disruptions are not repeated.”

In addition to the restitution and fines, the consent order requires Mastercard and UniRush to devise a plan to prevent future service disruptions.

Among the specific findings described in the consent order were that UniRush did not accurately transfer all accounts to Mastercard’s processing platform; delayed crediting cash and direct deposits to cardholder accounts; and did not promptly process electronic debits, falsely inflating cardholders’ balances, among other errors. The company also failed to provide customer service to many consumers who reached out for help during the disruption, the CFPB said.

Meanwhile, Mastercard did not ensure it was sending accurate balance information to UniRush when it declined to authorise certain transactions, leading to cardholders being told incorrectly that their account balances were zero, according to the bureau.

The outage – and subsequent social media solicitation from the CFPB – led to a spike in consumer complaints to the bureau, which received 830 complaints from RushCard users in the weeks following the switch of payment processors. By comparison, the agency previously had received an average of 213 monthly complaints about all prepaid products since the time it began tracking prepaid complaints in July 2014.

“We understand the critical role prepaid cards play in how people manage their money,” a Mastercard spokesperson tells Paybefore. “The agreement with the CFPB provides RushCard customers adversely affected by the October 2015 event with an opportunity to be further compensated for inconveniences caused during the service disruption.

“We are pleased to bring this matter to a close, allowing us to further enhance the best practices, policies and procedures for prepaid cards at our Payments Transactions Services business.”

Acquisitions, fines and more regulatory action

The enforcement action comes hot on the heels of the announcement that UniRush entered a definitive agreement to be acquired by Green Dot for at least $167 million.

UniRush already has taken several steps to make amends for the service disruption. In May 2016, UniRush agreed to pay up to $19 million to settle a class-action lawsuit stemming from the outage. Under terms of the settlement, the company agreed to pay at least $100 to each user who couldn’t access funds during the outage, with payouts of up to $500 for customers who suffered financial losses due to the disruption. The total settlement amount included fee reimbursements already paid and fees waived during the four-month holiday from card fees UniRush offered following the disruption.

“The vast majority of our customers are incredibly loyal and have either remained with us or returned to RushCard. In fact, the last quarter of 2016 marked the largest number of new customer signups in our company’s history,” a UniRush spokesperson tells Paybefore. “With this settlement behind us, we are eager to focus all of our energy now on serving our customers and providing them with the best services available in the prepaid industry.”

While the consent order may not affect Green Dot’s planned purchase of the company as noted in the original acquisition announcement, Green Dot could face a similar consent order.

Green Dot and Mastercard already have paid more than $4.4 million, which includes letting customers keep money that was incorrectly credited to them, as a result of a May 2016 service disruption related to the migration of the Walmart MoneyCard portfolio to the Mastercard processing platform. That dollar figure and other details from the tech problem – which hit about 58,500 customers with the inability to check account balances, activate their cards or have legitimate transactions approved – came to light in letters that company officials sent to a pair of US senators, Sherrod Brown and Bob Menendez, who demanded the companies provided answers about the service outage.

Neither Green Dot nor the CFPB offered comment on the possibility of a regulatory action.