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Paying with plastic used to mean “charge it.” No more. Consumers at the check-out counter now prefer to use their debit cards, which deduct funds directly from their checking accounts. This year, customers will tell cashiers “debit” as often as “credit,” according to the Mercator Advisory Group, a Massachusetts-based consulting firm for the payments industry. Next year, debit-card transactions are expected to pull ahead of credit-card sales in market share.

Now that a debit card plays such a central role in your day, you should get the most out of it, understand the trade-offs, and be aware of the gotchas. Below, the lowdown on using your debit card wisely.

Know your liability for fraud

Under federal regulations, you’re liable for up to $50 if you report a lost debit card within two days of the discovery. But if you don’t report within 60 days after a statement listing the fraudulent transaction is mailed to you, you could be liable for all your losses. That’s quite different from credit cards, which hold you liable for a maximum of $50. However, Visa and MasterCard have extended their credit-card zero-liability protection to debit cards carrying their logos.

But under Visa’s plan, you could become liable for all charges if the card issuer determines that the fraud is related to gross negligence on your part, or if the transaction wasn’t processed by the Visa network. MasterCard’s protection doesn’t apply if your account is past due or if you’ve reported two or more “unauthorized events” in the previous year.

Maximize it. Despite the loopholes, stick to debit cards that carry the Visa or MasterCard logo. But read on for an alternative way to protect yourself.

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