Monday, October 4, 2010

ETR: Who's Watching What You Spend Your Money On?

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Issue No. 3105 - $1.00 Home Archives Contact Us Privacy Policy
Monday October 4, 2010

"Relying on the government to protect your privacy is like asking a peeping Tom to install your window blinds."

John Perry Barlow

Who's Watching What You Spend Your Money On?
By Jason Holland

You want to buy your favorite $150 bottle of single malt Scotch -- but you don't want your wife to find out.

You go to pay the guy who just fixed your fence but find out he doesn't have a bank account. He doesn't want to pay a fee to a check cashing store. And you don't want to give him cash.

You'd like to do more shopping online, but you're worried about giving your credit card number to the smaller companies.

Your kid's off to college -- and you don't trust him with a credit card.

You have family overseas and you often transfer money to them -- but you're losing hundreds of dollars a year in transfer fees.

That's where "private plastic," the world's most discreet debit card, comes in.

According to the website of the company that offers it, this card:

  • Allows you to buy whatever you want, whenever you want. (It's accepted everywhere in the world -- just like cash.)

  • Has no credit limit. You determine how much you can spend at any given time.

  • Gives you and only you access to your account.

  • Has no late fees.

  • Will not affect your credit score. (What you do with the card is not even reported to the credit bureaus.)

  • Charges no interest (and, therefore, has no sneaky interest rate hikes).

  • And, above all, keeps your purchasing history "off the radar" of practically anyone.

"First off," Mr. V, a representative of the company, told me, "let me make it clear that this won't work for terrorists trying to transfer money overseas or drug smugglers laundering money. We have monitoring systems that keep track of unusual transactions. Last week, for instance, we caught a guy trying to move large amounts of money each week through Panama."

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Keep Your Spending Private

That said, Mr. V said this is the perfect way for people to keep their spending private. Sure, if the FBI or IRS is conducting an investigation, they can get your records. But they won't know you even have the card unless they look for it. And certainly no private investigator (or snooping family member) can get access.

You don't receive statements. (You can get your account balance by text message, if you'd like.) Your account info is only available online at a password-protected site.

What about refunds? Doesn't the company keep a record of your transactions to deal with that?

"There is a record of the transaction," admitted Mr. V. "Because if, say, you have a problem with a purchase and you claim you never made that purchase, we need to know it happened. But we don't have access to those records. Only the service company that processes the transactions has them."

The Roots of Private Plastic

Private plastic started as a way to give vital financial services to the unbanked, those with bad credit, and those who (for whatever reason) don't have credit cards, explained Mr. V. If you don't have a checking account, you end up cashing your paycheck -- and it isn't safe to walk around with that much cash. And when it comes time to pay a bill, you have to pay a fee to buy a money order.

Plus, it's just about impossible to get a hotel room or rental car or buy something online without plastic.

"And suppose you have to make payments to a guy who cleans your car every week or to your gardener," said Mr. V. "You can pay him with the card."

Private plastic is also ideal for transferring money nationwide or even worldwide. It's an alternative to Western Union, and for parents who want to control their kids' spending. (Because you load it with cash, they can never go over the limit.)

With private plastic, you load up your card in one of three ways: you take cash to an authorized location, you get a direct deposit from your regular job or work you do on the side, or you get money transferred from a bank account (yours or someone else's).

You can have your full paycheck go to the card. (It works just like when you get a direct deposit to your checking account -- and your boss won't know the difference.) Or you can put just a portion of your check to the plastic account -- maybe if you want to budget some "private" money for hobby or special interest.

The loading is anonymous, too. And your account is protected just as it is with any other credit or debit card. You don't have to sacrifice security for privacy. Your funds are insured by the FDIC up to $250,000. In case of identity theft or a lost or stolen card, you just call up the company and report it. MasterCard's zero liability policy helps protect you from unauthorized purchases.

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