Care Needed When Using Debit Cards

The Associated Press
Thursday, August 2, 2007; 11:30 AM

NEW YORK -- Americans are increasingly reaching for their debit cards rather than their credit cards when they're out shopping. Because using a debit card triggers an immediate withdrawal from a checking or savings account, it's not much different from writing a check or using cash _ and that can make it easier for consumers to budget. Another advantage is that consumers don't have to worry about big credit card bills arriving at the end of the month.

At the same time, there are risks with debit cards, experts say. Unwary consumers can trigger fees and surcharges when they use debit cards to get cash from ATMs or to make purchases at some retailers. And because debit cards don't have the same federal protections that credit cards do, consumers may find it harder to recover money if they're the victims of unscrupulous merchants or fraudsters.

"Debit cards gave seen tremendous growth because they're so convenient to use," said Greg McBride, senior financial analyst with of North Palm Beach, Fla. "But people shouldn't take them for granted."

For example, use a debit card to get cash from an ATM that isn't owned by your bank, and you could get hit with a surcharge averaging $1.64, McBride said. Your own bank could add its own fee of $1.25 or more for your use of the "foreign" ATM, he added. So you'll end up spending close to $3 for that money.

Forget to keep tabs on those cash withdrawals or debit card purchases, and you could get stuck paying an over-the-limit fee on your checking account of $35 or more, McBride said.

"The fact is, you can overdraw your account just as easily with a debit card as you can by writing too many checks," McBride said.

Meanwhile, some retailers tack on a fee if consumers use their debit cards with a PIN (private identification numbers) rather than signing for the purchase, as they would with a credit card.

The bigger problem faced by debit card users is what to do when something goes wrong with a purchase, said Paul Stephens, the director of policy and advocacy for the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego.

"A very significant consumer protection is that you can stop payment if you're not satisfied with the quality of goods or services," Stephens pointed out. "That is a very powerful tool."

Stopping payment works with a credit card, he points out, but not with a debit card because the money for a debit-card purchase in most cases is transferred almost immediately from the consumer's account. Then the consumer must fight to get his or her money back, he said.

Along with the rising popularity of debit cards has come an increase in fraud, Stephens said.

"We've been told of a number of instances lately of card skimming _ at a major supermarket chain and at a large gas station chain," he said. In these cases, the thieves substituted their own card-reading devices for those of the retailers, then stole the card information and began draining consumers' accounts.

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