Aug 1, 2017 at 4:35 pm  Print View

WASHINGTON — I could hear the panic in her voice, this pastor, who never fears anything.

She had simply wanted a free sample of face cream and agreed to pay the shipping cost — $5.99.

But the day after she used her debit card to place the order, the online company put through two different and unauthorized charges, one for $92.92 and another for $89.95.

The pastor, who also is my godmother, is a senior who lives on a fixed income. She literally can’t afford to be victimized. The fraudulent fees made her account overdrawn, which resulted in a $39 overdraft penalty from her financial institution.

I couldn’t believe this all happened just a week after I wrote about the recent increase in debit card fraud. From 2015 to 2016, the number of debt cards compromised at ATMs and merchants nationwide jumped 70 percent, according to FICO Card Alert Service.

Although my godmother’s theft wasn’t at an ATM, it was yet another reminder of how vulnerable consumers are when using a debit card connected to a bank account holding their household money.

“I feel so stupid,” she said after calling me for help.

She shouldn’t feel stupid. She was the victim. And companies such as the crooked one she trusted often prey on seniors in particular.

A number of readers reached out to me after the debit card column. Many passed on their own security measures to safeguard their bank accounts.

“A customer service representative at my bank recommended opening a second checking account just for my debit card,” wrote Jo Sullivan from Lynn, Mass. “I keep a few hundred dollars in that account. I replenish as needed, from my regular checking account.”

I love this tip. The point is the crook can only get away with a limited amount of money. Make sure your main account isn’t linked to the separate debit card.

Keep in mind that with a debit card there’s not much of a delay from the time of your purchase until the funds are withdrawn. This means fraudulent transactions can quickly do a lot of damage. And you may not get a refund soon enough to cover any bills you have coming due.

“Consumers don’t always realize that the credit card company logo affixed to their debit card doesn’t translate into the same protections offered by a credit card,” another reader correctly pointed out.

Do this for me. Before you use your debit card again, read this post from the Federal Trade Commission: “Lost or Stolen Credit, ATM, and Debit Cards.” You can find it at

In addition to other important information, you’ll see that when it comes to your debit card, the longer you wait to report a theft affects how much you can recover. Here’s your liability:

| Zero dollars — If your debit card is reported lost or stolen before an unauthorized transaction.

| $50 — If, after you learn about the unauthorized transactions, you report it within two business days.

| $500 — If the fraud is reported more than the two business days but fewer than 60 calendar days from getting your statement.

If you fail to report a fraudulent charge more than 60 calendar days after you receive your statement, you cede all protection. All your stolen money could be gone.

Because a debit card is treated like Cinderella compared to its sister, the credit card, many readers said they rarely use their bank card.

“For the last two years, I have withdrawn money via the bank card just one time when credit card terminals went down in a store,” one Maryland reader wrote. “Once every three or four weeks, I go inside the bank to the teller and take out enough cash for several weeks. The crooks and bank skimmers are not going to catch me.”

Many folks said they just don’t feel safe enough using debit cards.

“It is much better to use a credit card for purchases,” another person wrote. “If you spot — or your credit card company spots — a fraudulent charge, you are not liable for it. You are not out any money while they are investigating the issue. I keep refusing the debit card my bank keeps trying to get me to use.”

If your credit card is used without your permission, you only can be held liable for up to $50. And even then most banks won’t try to collect that from you.

Still for many people — those prone to getting into debt — a debit card is a better plastic choice. You just have to be extremely careful.

Thankfully, a very responsive bank employee is working with my godmother to reverse the fraudulent charges.

After the incident, I went over some debit-card safety precautions with my godmother because I never want to hear what I heard in her voice again. It scared me.

l Contact Michelle Singletary c/o the Washington Post, 1301 K St. N.W., Washington, D.C., 20071;; @SingletaryM.

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