Debit Cards Informative - Debit cards hold hidden dangers
By Lesley Mitchell
The Salt Lake Tribune
Article Last Updated: 03/12/2007 11:07:42 AM MDT
Debit cards are a convenient substitute for cash, but growing numbers of people are discovering there are a host of dangers in using cards connected to their checking accounts.
A crook can drain your bank account, leaving you with a slew of bounced checks. Mistaken charges could result in a frozen checking account while you try to straighten things out - which can take days or even months.
But consumers find them highly convenient. Over the past 10 years, debit card use has surged, soaring past credit card use in 2006 by almost 2 billion transactions, according to ATM&Debit News, a publication that tracks payment methods.
Experts say, however, that trend could reverse itself in the coming years as more people discover just how time-consuming and nightmarish it can be to deal with erroneous or fraudulent charges made to a debit card.
Candace Jones, of Salt Lake City, learned the hard way just how much trouble debit cards can be after paying $7 for lunch at a fast-food restaurant. A few weeks later, she discovered that the restaurant had debited her account by more than 10 times that amount - $86.13. The restaurant, a Quiznos in downtown Salt Lake City, closed before she could request an adjustment.
Had she used a credit card, she simply would have disputed the charge and waited while the credit card company investigated what happened.
But she used a debit card, and because of that, it took weeks working through her bank - which froze her account for five days during its investigation - before the nearly $80 overcharge was finally sorted out. For those five days, she couldn't write checks for bills or use her debit card to pay for food or gas.
That is why for many consumers, using cash or a credit card may be a better choice than debit cards for a variety of purchases, said Gail Hillebrand, senior attorney with Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports magazine.
Many people choose debit cards because purchases are deducted right from your checking account. They are processed just like credit cards and, if they are used like a credit card, consumers don't even have to type in a PIN. The cards enable consumers to avoid writing an old-fashioned check without having to carry a lot of cash.
With credit cards, users typically have a grace period in which to pay for their purchases before they are assessed interest. But many people find it is too tempting to run up a balance. That's just one of many reasons debit-card use has soared.
However, "paying by credit card gives you additional protections you don't get with a debit card," said Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director with the advocacy group U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG).
For starters, credit card transactions are protected under the Truth in Lending Act, he said.
Consumers using credit cards have the right to dispute charges for several reasons - if they are unhappy with the product or service they purchased or if they have discovered erroneous or outright fraudulent charges.
Plus, consumers are liable only for as much as $50 in fraudulent or erroneous charges, Mierzwinski said.
With debit cards, your right to dispute charges are more limited, he said. And, even if you are promised "zero liability" for problematic charges, you could end up being being personally liable for as much as $500 or more in some circumstances, he said.
Rob Brough, a spokesman for Zions Bank, said anyone who is a victim of fraud will fare better if they call their bank immediately after discovering the fraud and provide in a timely manner all the documentation the bank needs for its investigation.
"Working closely with your bank is important," Brough said. "The more information you can provide quickly to your bank, the better it's going to be."
If the prospect of a bungled checking account due to fraud or errors isn't bad enough, there is the issue of "blocking."
Some companies - especially travel-related businesses such as rental-car companies and hotels - "block out" an estimated value of what you are going to spend with them before you actually pay. That's to ensure that enough money will be in a checking account when a merchant debits it.
This is a particular problem with gas stations. When you use your debit card at the pump, a $50 to $75 "block" could be placed on your debit card for what actually turns out to be only a $10 or $20 sale of gas, according to U.S. PIRG.
The block often is removed hours later, but in some cases could cause a check written on that checking account to bounce because the consumer was not expecting such a large amount to be blocked.
Blocking occurs with credit cards, too. But the only problem is that it may temporarily reduce the amount you can charge.
Given the potential for problems, consumer advocates advise people to check their account balances often.
Jean Ann Fox, director of consumer protection for the Consumer Federation of America, said there are times when consumers should never use a debit card.
"I would never, for example, use a debit card to buy something online or over the phone because you're opening up your bank account to someone you don't know," she said. She said she would rather use a debit card in a physical location, such as a store or restaurant, where she can go back and dispute an incorrect charge or request an adjustment in person.
After years of hearing from consumers with horror stories about debit cards, Mierzwinski of the U.S. PIRG said he has stopped using debit cards altogether and suggests consumers do the same.
"There are too many reasons not to use debit cards," he said.
Jones, the Salt Lake City debit-card user whose struggled for weeks with an erroneous charge, said she will still use her debit card. But she will save her receipts - something she didn't used to do. And she now monitors her checking account every couple of weeks.
"I'm not going to let this happen again," she said.
Debit card tips
* Look at your checking account history and balance several times a month, if possible. Don't wait for your statement. That way if there is a problem, it is caught quickly.
* Report a lost card, or suspected unauthorized use, immediately. Generally, the faster you report an incorrect or fraudulent charge, the less you personally will be liable for.
* Consider using a credit card instead of a debit card for regular purchases each month. When you get your credit card statement, pay it off with a check drawn on your checking account. The reason: With a credit card, it may be easier for a consumer to rectify any unauthorized charges that may be made. And there is no risk any of your checks will bounce while your bank conducts an investigation into any erroneous or fraudulent purchase.