Dear ABC News Fixer: My problem is with credit or debit cards holding money beyond the purchase price for gas.

My friends and I have been discussing this practice. If you use a credit card or debit card at a gas station, the card holds an extra $50 until it clears. It's not on the gas receipt, but if you check your account online it shows, for two or three days.

Is this practice legal? Can they do it without notifying the consumer that it is happening?

- Jesse Rios, Chicago, Ill.

Dear Jesse: Yours is a common complaint, especially for consumers who tend to cut it close on their debit account balance or their credit card maximum. The ABC News Fixer is thinking of all those happy college students driving cross-country on spring break, unwittingly racking up these "hold" charges at every gas station, hotel and rental car place they visit.

We asked Visa, MasterCard, Discover and American Express and all said the issuing banks do this to make sure they'll get paid – because they might not find out until a day or two later what the exact amount of the gas purchase was and whether you have enough to pay for it.

The banks are allowed to place a hold of up to $75 for up to three days on a gas purchase by credit at the pump, including "credit" purchases made by swiping a debit card, said Nessa Feddis, vice president/senior counsel for the American Bankers Association. That's because the exact amount of your purchase isn't communicated to the bank immediately by the pump when your card is swiped – unlike most purchases -- and the gas station wants to make sure it will get paid. (Feddis said consumers who pay by debit card can generally avoid holds by using their PIN and making it a debit transaction and not a credit transaction.)

The problem is that consumers who pay at the pump with credit never know when a hold is going to happen – or how much it will be and for how long. A wealthy consumer may barely notice. But more middle-class folks who cut their balances close might find they can't get money from an ATM because two days earlier, they swiped their debit card at a pump.

Visa spokesman Ted Carr said that Visa has been encouraging gas retailers and their banks to send an "electronic memo" within two hours of a pay-at-the-pump transaction, showing the final sale amount. This can help speed up the release of the hold by the consumer's bank. MasterCard spokesman Seth Eisen said they, too, push for a two-hour release on holds.

Discover spokesman Matthew Towson added that credit card holds can be avoided altogether by paying inside the gas station, at the register. That might be the best idea for road-trippers on a budget.

Got a consumer problem? The ABC News Fixer may be able to help. Click here to submit your problem online. Letters are edited for length and clarity.

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