American Express Getting Into Debit Market

American Express has always been the most mysterious credit card company. Besides the fact that many establishments don’t accept the gold and black card, their presence in the debit market has been non-existent. As the companies first step in the wide world of consumer debit, American Express opened last week a new product called Serve.

The Serve web site is a prepaid electronic wallet, where consumers can access and transfer money through smartphones and computers equipped with Visa Inc., MasterCard Inc., and PayPal Inc. Consumers can go to the website on their phones and download an application for iPhones, iPads and Androids. Blackberry will have access to the technology later this year.

There is no initial cost for opening an account with Serve. Also, deposited funds don’t expire, nor is there a minimum balance required. Refusing to use a debit method attached to checking accounts sets American Express debit cards apart from Bank of America and JPorgan Chase & Co. debit cards which will likely see balance minimums and ATM fees due to the Dodd-Frank Act interchange fee cap. account holders will receive plastic cards linked to their electronic wallets. The Serve logo is on the front of the card, and on the back is a blue box that explains which merchants and consumers that it may be used at. Customers using the card will get one free withdrawal a month from an automated teller machine and be charged $2 for each subsequent withdrawal.

Debit cards are becoming the most common form of payment. According to Bloomberg, global consumer spending and cash transactions on Visa and MasterCard debit cards climbed 20 percent to $3.95 trillion last year. In the U.S., spending on debit cards rose 15 percent in 2010, compared with 6.3 percent for credit cards, according to the Nilson Report, an industry newsletter.

With a recent partnership with the social network FourSquare, American Express has made headway in exploring digital markets. Last year, American Express spent $305 million to buy the Internet-based payment processor Revolution Money, which is the tech foundation for Serve.

There’s no charge for using debit cards or checking accounts to fund a Serve account. Fees for funding accounts with credit cards have been waived for the first six months. After that, AmEx will charge 2.9 percent of the transaction total plus 30 cents, which is competitive with PayPal’s pricing, said Joanna Lambert, an American Express spokeswoman.

Customers can shop online without being required to enter sensitive information, such as a credit-card number and mailing address. They also will be able to send money person- to-person in the U.S. by entering a PIN number and the recipient’s e-mail address. The latter feature will be available worldwide later this year.