There are at least two ways consumers can better protect themselves against checking account fraud.

The first is to monitor your bank account. You can check it online regularly if you want to be extra vigilant, but you should always review your monthly bank statement and raise questions immediately about any unauthorized debit.

Banks are supposed to refund money for unauthorized transactions. For improper electronic debits, consumers are supposed to protest within 60 days after a bank statement with the error was mailed. Then, the bank has up to 45 days to investigate and resolve the complaint, but must return any funds within 10 days if the probe is not completed by then.

For unauthorized paper checks, some banks limit the time consumers can bring challenges to as little as 30 days after a bank statement was mailed. Banks may also demand proof the charge was not authorized.

In either case, if a refund is not given, you can complain to the federal or state agency that regulates your bank.

The second step is to be even more protective of your checking account information than you are about your credit cards. Not only do federal laws build in more consumer protections for disputing unauthorized credit card charges, but you will not be out money immediately if there is a fraudulent charge to the credit card bill.

It's one thing to pay by check or automated debit at the grocery store you visit every week, or at a well-known chain store, banking officials say. But consumers should think twice about using checks to pay a new vendor at a flea market, a telemarketer or an unknown Internet retailer.

"One of the most dangerous things a consumer can do on a Web purchase when they are dealing with someone they had no prior relationship with is to give out a bank account number," said George F. Thomas, president of the Electronic Payments Network, a division of the Clearinghouse, the largest private check processing system, owned by many of the nation's largest banks.

If in doubt, use a credit card, he said. It has more consumer safeguards and it doesn't give crooks access to your financial assets. Besides, he added, "it's easier to cancel a card than a bank account."

-- Caroline E. Mayer