Debit Danger At The Fuel Pump

The price of gasoline is slowing falling, but drivers are still paying an awful lot to fill up their tanks.

If you pay with a debit card, CBS News Correspondent Trish Regan reports that you should know what many gas stations are doing now to make sure you have enough money in your account.

With three kids and another on the way, Joe and Melanie Grams live paycheck to paycheck.

Two weeks ago, they headed to a Hess station in New Port Richey, Florida to fill their minivan before the holiday weekend. They bought $25 worth of gas with a debit card.

When they got home, Melanie checked their bank account online and discovered they were in the red.

"What went through your mind when you realized your bank account was negative?" Regan asked.

"How are we going to eat? You know, we need that money," Melanie said.

The Grams only had $73 in the bank that Friday. But the gas station had put a $75 hold on their account – a hold that lasted three business days.

"When you put your debit card in at a gas station, the station doesn't know how much it's gonna take to fill up your tank, but they know five minutes later when you're transaction's finished," said Gail Hillebrand, a senior attorney at a consumers union. "So if there is a need for a hold, then it ought to be for 5 or 10 minutes and not 72 hours."

Holds are allowed under Visa's processing rules, and gas stations across the country are instituting them because of record high gas prices.

Visa says the policy "safeguards both cardholders and merchants, ensuring card holders don't spend more money than they have and merchants are paid for the transaction."

But consumer groups say that it's causing checks to bounce all over the country.

"The only people that are gonna make money off it are your bank if it's causing you to bounce checks and then they can be making significant money," Hillebrand said.

Hess maintains consumers can avoid the hold by entering their PIN numbers when they pay. That's because PIN transactions are processed nearly immediately while credit transactions take more time.

But the Grams couldn't wait three days to put food on the table.

"To us, it's a lot of money. It was our money for groceries that week and it was gone as far as we knew," Joseph Grams said.

"I thought they should have let us know so that we'd have had the choice to go to an ATM machine and get cash and pay that way," Melanie Grams said.

Their neighborhood Hess station has since posted signs to warn people about the holds – but the Grams say it's too late. They won't go back.
  • Stephen Smith

    Stephen Smith is a senior editor for CBSNews.com

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