Green Dot's MoneyPak reload cards might be defunct in the real world, but they live on at Litchfield Penitentiary, the fictional setting of Netflix's "Orange Is the New Black."
Spoiler alert: Plot details follow.
During the Netflix show's third season, which premiered last month, protagonist Piper Chapman starts a crime ring but her cohorts refuse to accept payment in ramen flavor packets; they instead demand money.
Fellow inmate Red suggests something green the Green Dot MoneyPak, which the real-life prepaid card issuer discontinued for its colorful past. The cards are printed with reload codes for Green Dot prepaid cards, so all Chapman needs is their 14-digit code communicated to her from someone outside prison via a smuggled phone, Red tells her. Chapman follows orders and her cohorts get back to work.
Green Dot says it had nothing to do with the cameo.
"This fictional television program and the content therein, including the unauthorized use of our brand contained in the referenced episode, was not in any way endorsed, paid for or even known of by Green Dot," the company said in an emailed statement.
The Netflix program likely drew inspiration from a 2012 racketeering case involving the Baltimore City Detention Center and a gang called the Black Guerilla Family. Prisoners and guards were accused of using the cards, the 14-digit codes and smuggled-in phones as the payment platform for the sale of drugs and other contraband. Of the 44 defendants charged in the racketeering conspiracy, 40 have been convicted including 24 correctional officers. Five defendants were convicted by trial, while 35 plead guilty. Three were acquitted and one died.
"Part of prison is the control of interactions, so everything is supposed to be reviewed by the prison in order to prevent bad things from happening," said Rod Rosenstein, the U.S. attorney for Maryland, in an interview. "No currency is allowed in prison, so the ability to move money just by having a 14-digit code made for an effective medium of exchange."
Green Dot discontinued the product late last year and stands to lose between $10 million and $40 million in earnings this year from the product.
"MoneyPak is officially done and what was a really awesome invention years ago and became popular is now a part of the history of the prepaid industry," said Steve Streit, chief executive of Green Dot, in a February conference call to discuss the company's fourth-quarter earnings. "The reason is there is third-party fraud that we just didn't feel like we could control, and the product was just too prone to that kind of abuse and we decided to get rid of it."
Streit also noted that competitors had also pulled similar products.
So, does a fictional show using its brand as a key part of payment system for illegal prison activity hurt Green Dot's reputation?
Probably not, says Ron Shevlin, director of research at bank and credit union consultancy Cornerstone Advisors.
"Here's the thing, it is already phased out, so big deal if it was used on the show," Shevlin said. "It is free publicity. Netflix won't share the demographics, but it is a good bet that it is skewed to the 18-to-34-year-old crowd and that's the main market for prepaid cards If anything, it makes people more aware of Green Dot."