Debit cards' differences sometimes make them the wrong choice
By Dana Dratch
They may look just like credit cards, but debit cards work differently, and aren't always the best choice. Some times you may want to avoid them include:
While credit cards and debit cards may look almost identical, not all plastic is the same.
"It's important that consumers understand the difference between a debit card and a credit card ," says John Breyault, director of the Fraud Center for the National Consumers League, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group. "There's a difference in how the transactions are processed and the protections offered to consumers when they use them."
While debit cards and credit cards each have advantages, each is also better suited to certain situations. And since a debit card is a direct line to your bank account, there are places where it can be wise to avoid handing it over -- if for no other reason than complete peace of mind.
Here are 10 places and situations where it can pay to leave that debit card in your wallet:
"You don't use a debit card online," says Susan Tiffany, director of consumer periodicals for the Credit Union National Association. Since the debit card links directly to a checking account, "you have potential vulnerability there," she says.
Her reasoning: If you have problems with a purchase or the card number gets hijacked, a debit card is "vulnerable because it happens to be linked to an account," says Linda Foley, founder of the Identity Theft Resource Center. She also includes phone orders in this category.
The Federal Reserve's Regulation E (commonly dubbed Reg E), covers debit card transfers. It sets a consumer's liability for fraudulent purchases at $50, provided they notify the bank within two days of discovering that their card or card number has been stolen.
Most banks have additional voluntary policies that set their own customers' liability with debit cards at $0, says Nessa Feddis, vice president and senior counsel for the American Bankers Association.
But the protections don't relieve consumers of
hassle: The prospect of trying to get money put back into their bank account, and the problems that a lower-than-expected balance can cause in terms of fees and refused checks or payments, make some online shoppers reach first for credit cards.
2. Big-ticket items
With a big ticket item, a credit card is safer, says Chi Chi Wu, staff attorney with the National Consumer Law Center. A credit card offers dispute rights if something goes wrong with the merchandise or the purchase, she says.
"With a debit card, you have fewer protections ," she says.
In addition, some cards will also offer extended warrantees. And in some situations, such as buying electronics or renting a car. some credit cards also offer additional property insurance to cover the item.
Two caveats, says Wu. Don't carry a balance. Otherwise, you also risk paying some high-ticket interest. And "avoid store cards with deferred interest," Wu advises.
3. Deposit required
When Peter Garuccio recently rented some home improvement equipment at a big-box store, it required a sizable deposit. "This is where you want to use a credit card instead of a debit," says Garuccio, spokesman for the national trade group American Bankers Association.
That way, the store has its security deposit, and you still have access to all of the money in your bank account. With any luck, you'll never actually have to part with a dollar.
"To me, it's dangerous," says Gary Foreman, editor of the frugality minded website The Dollar Stretcher. "You have so many people around."
Foreman bases his conclusions on what he hears from readers. "Anecdotally, the cases that I'm hearing of credit or debit information being stolen, as often as not, it's in a restaurant," he says.
The danger: Restaurants are one of the few places where you have to let cards leave your sight when you use them. But others think that avoiding such situations is not workable.
Anecdotally, the cases that I'm hearing of credit or debit information being stolen, as often as not, it's in a restaurant.