The Dangers of Using a Debit Card

Last Updated Jun 24, 2010 11:10 AM EDT


This post was updated May 29, 2010.
Consumers need to be particularly careful during vacation season because identity thieves come out in droves. That makes it pivotal that consumers keep their debit cards on ice, said Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearing House and one of the nation's foremost experts on keeping your private information private.

What makes debit cards so dangerous? Givens has so many reasons, her organization has put out an exhaustive fact sheet on whether you should use cash, credit or debit cards when shopping. (The report also explains the shortcomings of gift cards.)

Here's the short version of the dangers of debit:

1. Loss Limits.
Like credit cards, federal law limits your liability for fraudulent transactions on a debit card to $50. But that's only if you notify your financial institution within two days of discovering the theft. If you're a space cadet and don't check your bank statements for a couple of months, you could lose everything.

2. Pay Now/Reimburse Later
If someone has fraudulently used your credit card, you don't have to pay the charge. But when somebody has fraudulently used your debit card, the money comes directly out of your account in real time. That means you're out the money while the bank does a leisurely examination of their records to investigate your fraud claim. Many consumers complaining to Privacy Rights Clearing House said they lost access to their funds for several weeks. In the meantime, they were caught short and unable to pay their bills, Givens said.

3. Merchant disputes
The same problem affects merchant disputes. If you pay with a credit card when ordering something online, and that product comes damaged, broken or not at all, you can dispute the charge and stop payment with your credit card. If you used your debit card, the charge is paid when you made the order. By the time you find out the goods weren't what was advertised, the merchant has your cash and you're in the unenviable position of having to fight to get your money back.
4. Phantom charges.
If you use a credit card at a hotel, the hotel takes an imprint when you check in, but doesn't charge your card until you check out. It's a far different story with a debit card. Generally, hotels will put a "hold" on funds in your account for more than you're spending. Yes, more. They hold the full amount of your stay, plus an estimated amount for "incidentals," such as meals at the hotel restaurant and dipping into the mini-bar. This is not an actual charge--the hold will come off your account at the end of your stay. But it affects the available balance in your checking account anyway and can lead to overdrafts. One consumer said these phantom charges cost him $140 in overdraft fees. These "holds" are commonly placed on debit card transactions made at hotels, gas stations and rental car companies.

5. Overdrafts, overdrafts and more overdrafts
Overdraft charges have been soaring in recent years and the vast majority of consumers who pay them explain that their overdraft was the result of a debit card transaction. Many consumers naively assumed that if they didn't have sufficient funds in their accounts, their bank wouldn't approve a debit swipe. But they were wrong. The result: a $4 coffee could trigger a $35 overdraft fee. Government regulators are reining in these fees by demanding that banks give consumers a chance to "opt out" of automatic overdraft protection, but that doesn't start for existing accounts until August. (If you have a new account, it's starts in July.)

6. Skimming
Financial crooks have gotten sophisticated in recent years and are using "skimming" machines to read your card data and charge your account, Givens said. When your debit card is skimmed, your bank account can be drained before you know that you've been had.

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