4 risky places to swipe your debit card
Would you give a thief direct access to your checking account?
No? Unfortunately, you may be doing just that by regularly using your debit card. Debit cards may look identical to credit cards, but there’s one key difference. With credit cards, users who spot fraudulent charges on their bill can simply decline the charges and not pay the bill. On the other hand, debit cards draw money directly from your checking account, rather than from an intermediary such as a credit card company.
Because of that, even clear-cut cases of fraud where victims are protected from liability by consumer protection laws can cause significant hardship, says Frank Abagnale, a secure-document consultant in Washington, D.C.
He cites the example of the The TJX Companies Inc.’s T.J. Maxx data breach that exposed the payment information of thousands of customers in 2007. The incident resulted in $150 million in fraud losses, and much of it was pulled directly from customers’ bank accounts. While credit card users got their accounts straightened out and new cards in the mail within a few days, the case created major problems for debit card holders who waited an average of two to three months to get reimbursed, Abagnale says.
While debit card fraud is always a possibility, being careful where you use it can help keep your checking account balance out of the hands of criminals.
The idea that outdoor ATMs are among the most dangerous places to use a debit card seems a little bit absurd. But some ATMs present a perfect opportunity for thieves to skim users’ debit cards, says Chris McGoey, a security consultant based in Los Angeles.
Skimming is the practice of capturing a bank customer’s card information by running it through a machine that reads the card’s magnetic strip. Those machines are often placed over the real card slots at ATMs and other card terminals.
“Any transaction you do outdoors at an open ATM is going to be higher risk exposure,” McGoey says. “If the public has access to it, then someone has the ability to add skimming devices to it, position cameras on it and position themselves in a way where they could surveil it.”
He says you’re better off using an ATM inside a retail outlet or other high-trafficked, well-lit place.
Julie McNelley, senior analyst for Aite Group LLC, a Boston-based financial services research firm, says even the card terminals that card users must swipe to get into ATM vestibules are being used as a skimming site by criminals. You can spot ATM skimmers by checking for ATM components that look beat-up or askew, she says.
Gas stations are another danger zone for debit card use.
“You go to a gas station and you stick your debit card in there, and you swipe it through a machine,” Abagnale says. “I’m sitting across the street with a laptop and an antenna. I put a skimmer in there, and I’m picking up all the information. Before you even get home, I’ve debited your account.”
Gas station payment terminals have many of the characteristics card fraudsters love, McNelley says.
“In a gas station where you do have a whole bunch of pay-at-the-pump kinds of things and minimal supervision, it’s pretty easy for a bad guy to put a skimming device on and put a little pinpoint camera there and compromise debit cards that way,” McNelley says. Thieves often use small cameras to capture footage of debit card users entering their PINs so they can have free access to their money.
She says even if the thief doesn’t manage to get your debit card personal identification number, or PIN, from such a device, he still may be able to duplicate the card’s magnetic strip and use it for “sign and swipe” Visa or MasterCard transactions.
With the high potential for fraud in pay-at-the-pump debit transactions, it might make sense to use an alternative such as cash or credit cards the next time you fill up.