5 On Your Side

Your PIN is something thieves want

Posted February 5, 2009
Updated March 9, 2009

Debit cards appeal to two groups: consumers and, increasingly, thieves.

Katy Henthorne became the victim of thieves who stole her PIN, or personal identification number, and then her money.

"Honestly, I was livid," Henthorne said. "I was furious, and I was angry and a little scared that somebody had managed to get into my account so easily."

Debit-card fraud, theft increasing Debit-card fraud, theft increasing

Thieves were able to copy Henthorne's debit-card information, including her PIN and account number. She said she is grateful her bank spotted the theft almost immediately.

"They saved me potentially thousands of dollars," Henthorne said.

But the equipment thieves need to copy your debit-card information is easily available – sold online.

"Criminals secretly install a device called a skimmer on your ATM machine," Tobie Stanger, of Consumer Reports, said.

Thieves then use the stolen information to create a new card.

"Your whole account could be wiped out, including money you had set aside for your mortgage, for your car payment, for other payments," said attorney John Campbell, who helps victims of bank-card theft.

Consumers are most vulnerable at places such as gas stations, convenience stores and airports, where it's easier to install skimmers. However, even at a bank ATM, check to make sure nothing is loose or out of place.

You can take some simple actions to protect your account.

"When you're making a purchase with your bank card, press 'credit,' not 'debit,'" Stanger said.

Money is still deducted immediately as if you used a debit card, but buyers don't punch in their PIN code, so a criminal can't steal it. In most cases when the credit option is used, consumers are responsible for only $50 of any loss.

Henthorne said she learned not to use her PIN unless the bank teller asks for it.

Another way to protect yourself against debit-card theft: Check your account online frequently. That lets you quickly spot any suspicious activity.

Federal law limits your liability for fraudulent debit-card charges, but with some banks, you can lose up to $500 if you don't report any problem you find – or the loss of your card – within two business days.

Debit cards backed by Visa and MasterCard have zero liability, but straightening out your account can involve some headaches, since money spent by crooks is taken out of your account immediately.


This story is closed for comments.

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  • ThisIsMyName Feb 11, 2009

    My Visa debit card has a $300 single transaction limit, so I couldn't make a major transaction on it.

  • james27613 Feb 10, 2009

    Do not use a debit card for any major purchase, never ever.
    go to the atm and get the cash to make the purchase or
    use credit card and get consumer protection and some
    cards give you extra time on warranty.

    Debit cards DO NOT give you consumer protections that
    Credit cards have by law.

    The banks push the debit cards on the public, it costs them a lot less to do the transactions, they make more money off the merchants.

    It can take a lot longer for the merchant bank to put the funds back into your bank account if you use a debit card.

    also avoid those store 'gift' cards.

    wanna know why they call them 'gift' cards?

    Your giving your money away for a piece of plastic,
    if the company goes under, you are out the money.

  • ThisIsMyName Feb 10, 2009

    Go back to cash? You've got to be nuts! While we're at it, why don't we just roll back the calendar 3000 years.

  • Commonscents Feb 9, 2009

    "Henthorne said she learned not to use her PIN unless the bank teller asks for it."

    Even bank tellers should not be asking for PINs - that's why they're called PERSONAL.....

  • DontLikeTheSocialistObama Feb 6, 2009

    Let's go to a cash only society. Then identity theft would be a thing of the past.

  • Dr. Dataclerk Feb 6, 2009

    Keep your card with you at all times.