Avoiding debit card dangers

Protecting Your Credit and Debit Cards

by Gary Foreman

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Debit Card Dangers

Recently, my husband and I had the displeasure of being ripped off for $400 after eating out at a restaurant. The debit card has now been closed and the bank is supposedly working on the problem of getting our money back to us.

How can one eat out without being concerned that this can happen again. Is there anyway to prevent it? We are very upset and frustrated that someone ripped us off for this money and also cannot afford this big of a loss. My husband is on Social Security and is working part-time. What can we do, if anything, to protect ourselves from this happening? We have discussed buying gift cards to these restaurants, which is a pain but would prevent what happened from happening again. Do you have any other suggestions?

Cheryl and her husband are not alone. In a recent poll at epaynews.com, three quarters of consumers said that credit card fraud was a major or moderate concern. And, they have good reason to be concerned. The Federal Trade Commission estimates there are $3 billion in fraudulent charges each year.

Guess that shouldn't be surprising. We use our plastic a lot. Visa and MasterCard estimate that we spend near $2 trillion dollars using their cards each year. And, that doesn't include the money we spend using Discover, American Express, store cards, gas cards, etc.

So what happened to Cheryl and her husband? The most likely scenario is that they gave their card to the server to pay for the meal. While out of sight from Cheryl, either the server or the cashier wrote down their card number and the verification code on the back. Later, they used the numbers to make online purchases where a physical credit card isn't required.

How can Cheryl and her husband prevent a reoccurrence? There are things they can do to protect themselves. But, we'll find that security comes with a price. The most effective tools are also the ones that are most inconvenient. So Cheryl will need to decide how much security she wants.

Cheryl is already using a debit card. The advantage is that the crook can only spend what's in the account unlike a credit card that can be used up to its credit limit.

Cheryl probably had the cost of the meal and another $400 in the account that day. One way to limit the loss is to keep less in the account. For instance, if there's only $100 in the account no one can charge more than that using the debit card. Of course, keeping a low balance means adding money to the account every time you intend to use it. If she wants to try this, Cheryl should talk to her bank about using online banking to transfer money. She'll also need to know whether the transferred money is available immediately or if she has to wait overnight.

There are a couple of other ways to make using credit or debit cards safer. One of the most effective is to not let the card out of your sight. That way if someone is going to try to steal your credit card number, they'll have to do it while you're watching them. Chances are, they'll choose someone else who is an easier target to rob.

Use a PIN number. She's probably already aware, but keep your PIN number separate from your card.

Using gift cards probably wouldn't have made Cheryl any safer than taking her debit card up to the cashier herself. You still have someone you don't know handling your card.

One way to make sure no one steals your card number is to use cash. You do run the risk of losing it or being mugged. However, the good news is that you can't lose more than you have in your pocket or purse.

There is, however, one additional risk for cash. Getting cash from an ATM is not completely safe. Some smart criminals put recording devices onto ATMs. They record your account and PIN number for later use. So the safest way to get cash is to visit the bank during normal business hours and deal with an old fashioned, real live teller.

While losing $400 is nasty, it could have been much worse. Cheryl should only be liable for the first $50 in fraudulent charges. So the monetary damage is limited. It becomes a much bigger problem if someone parlays her credit card number into identity theft.

Undoing an identity theft can take hundreds of hours. It's estimated that the time spent by the average ID theft victim to get things straightened out is worth $16,000.

Cheryl is right to worry about safeguarding her credit accounts. Not only are there more ways for crooks to use a stolen credit card number, but also in the age of ID theft, the damage inflicted can be substantial.

Gary Foreman

Gary Foreman is a former financial planner and purchasing manager who founded The Dollar Stretcher.com website and newsletters in 1996. He's been featured in MSN Money, Yahoo Finance, Fox Business, The Nightly Business Report, US News Money, Credit.com and CreditCards.com. Gary shares his philosophy of money here. You can follow Gary on Twitter. Gary is also available for audio, video or print interviews. For more info see his media page.

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