debit card


It’s ever so tempting to dip into your own savings account when you don’t really have discretionary funds. While that’s not good for your budget or your savings plan, at least when you’re the one tampering with your debit card, you get to spend the money and you might even pay it back. When someone else uses your debit card, you may never get any of the pilfered funds back. You may lose money, the time and energy it takes to replace your card and even your identity. So there’s no need to convince you to be careful where you swipe your debit card but you’d be surprised. There are numerous scams for stealing debit card info and they take place in some pretty offbeat spots. To protect your card, watch out at these four places where people are most likely to swipe your debit card:

1. Getting cash from outdoor ATMs

This information might make you feel a little paranoid, but there really are multiple possibilities for thieves to mess with a public ATM located outdoors. One way they capture your data when you use the machine: They install a “skimmer” right on top of the authentic card reader. Crooks may go as far as creating a terminal with its own operating system from a stolen ATM, too. Then, they simply scoop up the real machine and put a modified version into its place. When you swing by and swipe your card, the fake machine captures not just your card data but your pin number, while showing you a communication error message.

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Obviously, it’s tougher for a thief to make the switch inside a business, so you’re better off getting cash from an ATM that’s inside a retail outlet with lots of management and foot traffic — like a wholesale club or credit union lobby. Along with reducing the odds that a thief will swap out the machine during the day, if the building’s locked at night it’s impossible.

2. Putting gas in the car

Those same type of skimmers thieves use on top of outdoor ATM card readers work pretty much the same way on gas station card readers. Some crime rings even equip the skimmers with Bluetooth so they can collect the debit card account numbers and pin numbers wirelessly. The best precaution, inconvenient as it can be, is probably to use only credit cards at a gas station. Try to find one with no annual fee and set up an auto-pay from, yep, your checking account that’s linked to a debit card. If you must use a debit card at the gas station, make sure to cup your hand over the touchpad (or hold a paper towel over the pumps). Do this even if no one is nearby because you’re actually blocking a camera from recording your pin, not a human.

3. Eating out

It’s so convenient to use a debit card at a restaurant. You’ve got that “keeping track of the budget” thing going, and it’s nice for the money to be immediately gone from your bank account when you spend it. Problem is, when the server takes any card out of sight, there’s ample time for him or her to copy the number, expiration date and three-digit code on the back. And while a credit card company can’t hold you liable if someone steals your number (as opposed to the card itself), debit card providers do not have the same legal prohibition.

4. Buying stuff online

As much fun as it is to shop online, it’s even more fun to be able to purchase without incurring credit card debt or hiding expenses in a way that will bite you at the end of the month. However, it’s no fun at all when scammers use the online debit card transaction to steal. Along with literally not knowing who is getting that information you’re typing in (complete with your address!), this transaction leaves you open to hackers every step of the way, from malware on your computer to wireless eavesdropping. This is another time you’d want to use a credit card instead of a debit card to avoid liability for any charges you didn’t authorize.

Other ways to protect your account information

There are some strategies that work to protect a credit or a debit card from being used fraudulently. Just a few best practices recommended by the Federal Trade Commission include carrying only the card you plan to use when you go out, refusing to share your account information over the phone unless you placed the call and always marking a line through the empty space above the total on a charge slip from a restaurant. That way, no one can add to the amount once you leave. Pay attention so you never accidentally sign a slip that just has your account info but is blank where the specifics of your charge should be.

Finally, since the maximum amount you personally would have to cover for unauthorized debit card charges is a big fat zero if you report the theft ahead of any charges, make sure you can report a scammer quickly. Make a list of your account number, the debit card expiration and the telephone number of the bank or credit union that issued the card.  Hopefully, your worst case scenario will be reporting the scam within two days of learning of the fraud, which makes you liable for just $50 of the charges.