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4 million stimulus checks are arriving as debit cards, and some people mistake them for a scam

Prepaid economic impact payment cards started going out to stimulus recipients in May.
Photo illustration / EIPcard.com

Millions of Americans are still waiting on coronavirus stimulus payments from the IRS. If you're one of them, there's a decent chance you've already gotten your money in the form of a debit card in the mail. 

"Yay, that is your payment!" Janet Holtzblatt, senior fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, told Grow. Last week, the government began sending out economic impact payments as prepaid debit cards. Approximately 4 million Americans will receive debit cards instead of paper checks or direct deposits, according to the IRS. 

"Did you tear up that debit card thinking it was a scam?" she said. "Don't feel bad — I would have too."

The decision to send out prepaid cards — which are officially called EIP Cards, using the IRS' official "Economic Impact Payment" terminology — was not widely reported before the first batch was sent out. As a result, some recipients have thrown theirs out, thinking they were junk mail or part of a phishing scheme.

"I found it odd that it came in the form of a debit card," says Russell Bradley, a Massachusetts-based software engineer who received his card last week. "I was expecting a check, or perhaps direct deposit."

Unsure if the card you received is legitimate or safe? Wondering how to access your funds? Or perhaps you threw away the envelope by accident? Here's what you need to know.

How to know if the debit card is legitimate

The names "MetaBank" and "Money Network" should appear somewhere in the letter that came with your prepaid card. Though not as recognizable as "IRS" or "Treasury Department," both are parts of the federal government. 

MetaBank is the retail banking arm of the Treasury Department, while Money Network is a division of Fiserv, a publicly owned digital financial services firm. Money Network is based in Omaha, Nebraska, which should on be the return address on the envelope.

While you should be wary of the many stimulus-related scams out there, these cards are legitimate.

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You can spend the money pretty much immediately

The advantage of receiving a prepaid card is that you can spend the money as soon as you receive it and activate the card. To do so, call 1-800-240-8100, or 1-800-241-9100 if you're using a TTY.

"Prepaid debit cards are secure, easy to use, and allow us to deliver Americans their money quickly," Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said in a statement last week. "Recipients can immediately activate and use the cards safely."

Since it's a Visa card, you can use it the same way you would use a typical debit card at any physical or online store that accepts Visa, according to the FAQ page of EIPcard.com, a web portal set up by MetaBank.

"Yes, you can use your Card to make purchases if the merchant's website accepts Visa® Debit Card payments," the site explains for anyone looking to make an online purchase. "You will need to enter your EIP Card information: 16-digit card number, expiration date and 3-digit code from the Card back. Make sure you have used the correct billing address associated with your Card account."

If you're looking to get cash, the card does allow cash back at retailers that normally offer it. You can use it without a fee at in-network ATMs, which can be located online.

You can also make a withdrawal from an out-of-network ATM for a fee.

Moving the money to a bank account should be a similarly simple process. Once activated, you can set up a transfer at EIPCard.com or on Money Network's mobile app, and the funds should appear in 1-2 business days.

If you mistakenly threw out your card, you have options

If you have thrown out your EIP Card because you thought it was fraudulent, that doesn't mean you've thrown out thousands of dollars. You can lock the card at EIPCard.com or by calling 1-800-240-8100.

Requesting a replacement, however, is not free. While the official EIP Card website doesn't list replacement fees, The Washington Post reported that receiving a replacement through Priority Mail can run you $17.

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