One recent afternoon, I logged onto to my bank account online to see if a check had cleared. When the screen popped up, I was puzzled. There were a string of debits from the joint checking account my husband, Cliff, and I share. The red-flag charges had begun the previous night.
$38.93 at a McDonalds in Rockville, Md.; $17.12 at a nearby Taco Bell 20 minutes later; various 7-Eleven charges, gas station purchases and so forth. The total amount drained in less than 24 hours: roughly $300.
Neither of us was anywhere near Rockville. Cliff had been in New York City; I was in Virginia. The crook apparently somehow got Cliff’s Citibank debit card. (I have a different card with a different number.)
My Zealous Pursuit
This unpleasant experience led me on a zealous pursuit to halt the debit-card fraud and help get our money back. Let me tell you what I learned so you’ll know what to do if you become a debit-card victim. Brace yourself.
I can't imagine what a mess it might have been if I had not checked the account that day and if additional charges were racked up, wiping out the account.
As soon as I saw the problem (and couldn’t reach Cliff), I called the toll-free number on the back of my card to report the trouble and to block Cliff’s. This wasn’t easy since the crime was committed on his card, but I insisted Citibank do so immediately since transactions are deducted from our joint checking account as they occur.
After answering a few security questions, and with some clamorous coaxing, the fraud investigation unit’s customer service rep shuttered Cliff’s card. That was, of course, only after I screeched that it was my money too, being stolen from our joint account, which by the way is linked to our savings, should the account run dry. Can you say, chilling?
Now for the awful part: I was told that nothing could be done about the cash that had already been siphoned until Cliff called and reported the card lost. But I had no idea whether his card had been lost, stolen or if someone had just skimmed the number from his card at an ATM he used. (His chip card is supposed to guard against that from happening, but lots of ATMs have yet to convert.)
What Happened to the Debit Card
Even if Cliff had not been in a different state, given the nature of the transactions, I was certain that he was not making these purchases. Eventually, I reached Cliff by phone. He didn’t know he had lost the card, but quickly discovered that it wasn’t in his wallet. (We surmised that he dropped it in our local Citi branch’s parking lot after using it and before driving to New York.)
He then called the bank’s toll-free number and filed an official report. The bank made the adjustments to our account three days later by re-depositing the funds that had been withdrawn for each charge. Cliff received a new debit card the following business day. As far as I know, that’s the end of our story.
That said, the whole experience was rattling. I can’t imagine what a mess it might have been if I had not inadvertently checked the account that day and if additional charges were racked up, wiping out the account.
Such a domino effect made my head spin. What if we had bills scheduled for electronic payments or checks presented for payment and they collided with no funds left to pay? What if Cliff had needed cash on his travels and the card had been blocked by my request before I reached him?
I felt like I had been robbed, violated in some way.
Debit Cards vs. Credit Cards
This incident brought home the potential security issues of carrying around a debit card with a Visa or MasterCard logo. So, here are some important reminders about the distinctions between those types of debit cards and credit cards:
Debit cards are linked to your checking account and have the potential to drain it in real time. Credit card charges don’t carry that same risk. You can catch an erroneous charge on your monthly credit card statement and dispute it without ever having to shell out a dime.
These days, more than likely, your credit card issuer will contact you immediately if it spots an odd charge. It might even deny the charge on the spot. (This has happened to me when I’ve been traveling and not told the card issuer I would be using it from another state.) It’s a pain, but I appreciate the protection.
Now, I always make sure to notify my credit card companies if I’ll be taking a trip and expect to be using the card for larger purchases than normal.
Debit cards offer less security than credit cards. With credit cards, federal law limits your loss at a maximum of $50 if your card is lost or stolen; major credit card issuers generally waive all liability for you. With a debit card, “acting fast limits your liability for charges you didn’t authorize,” according to the Federal Trade Commission. “Once you report the loss of your ATM or debit card, federal law says you cannot be held liable for unauthorized transfers that occur after that time.” Many debit-card issuers have toll-free numbers and 24-hour service.
But here’s the reality: If someone uses your debit card before you report it lost or stolen, your liability really depends on how quickly you report it. Within two business days after you learn about the loss or theft, you could be responsible for up to $50, according to federal law. More than two business days after you learn about the loss or theft, but less than 60 calendar days after your statement is sent, you could be on the hook for up to $500. After 60 days, you might not be reimbursed at all.
In general, after you report a fraudulent transaction, your bank has 10 business days to investigate, according to federal law. If the problem is proven to be fraudulent, the bank must replace the funds within one business day of making that determination.
Luckily for us, Citi has a $0 liability on unauthorized charges policy, providing the fraud investigations team concurs that the charges disputed are the result of theft.
How to Avoid Debit Card Thievery
Here’s my advice on what to do to avoid having your account robbed if you have an ATM or debit card:
Check your account routinely. Sign on at least once a week. I do it daily now. If you notice any transactions you didn’t make, contact your bank straightaway.
Set up account alerts. Most banks let you get debit-card alerts delivered to your cell phone or e-mail address so you can stay updated on your account activity on a daily basis.
Consider canceling your debit card and replacing it with a plain vanilla, old-fashioned ATM card. You can use that card at your bank’s ATMs and any other ATM in your bank’s network that doesn’t charge a fee for accessing your accounts.
I’ve made that switch myself. I’ve decided I can get by just fine with a regular credit card and cash. Call me old-fashioned, but this system works for me. Cash may be out of style, but I’ll live with that in exchange for better sleep at night.