This post begins with a big old sigh: >> S I G H <<
I have been had.
I don’t know by whom, or how, but someone has been using my debit card number at gas stations in another state on the opposite coast from where I live. Thankfully, Washington Mutual noticed the odd behavior and called me on Monday to let me know that there were some “suspicious” transactions on Sunday. They told me to watch my account and report to them any transactions I did not authorize to their fraud department.
I am lucky. I have only had about $400 taken from my account, and I had enough in my account that I didn’t accrue any overdraft charges. And, my bank caught it and called me. Kudos to WaMu (I hope they live up to these kudos by honoring my claim and covering the stolen money).
Here’s what I learned from the experience, both from my bank, and from doing a little bit of research:
All the transactions were at a gas station – perhaps that is the connection. I do pay for gas with my debit card. My card information may have been taken when I swiped it at a gas station by a card skimmer. A quick search on google revealed numerous recent reports of card skimming scams at gas stations. Here are a few:
SFGate article (5/30/08), “San Jose gas station center of debit card scam”
SeattlePI (07/21/08) “Puyallup gas station customers scammed in debit card fraud”
One person I talked to in the Fraud dept at WaMu told me that transactions from gas stations take longer to post to the bank than most. I wonder if this is an opportunity for thieves – the longer it takes to post, the less likely you’ll notice in a timely manner. It buys them time.
Paying with a credit card is probably safer. It’s not a direct line to the cash in your account the way debit is. And credit cards often have strict fraud processes built in for their customers’ protection. A few articles I read online mention a recent rise in debit card fraud. Here’s an article from Reader’s Digest that suggests some ways to protect yourself: “Avoid these Debit Card Traps”.
I also learned that there are different kinds of cards banks issue. The old-school ATM cards, which allowed you to take cash out of an ATM machine, were not debit cards. Many banks stopped issuing these in favor of the Visa or MC-sponsored debit card. They get a cut of the action when these cards are used. Some consumer advocate groups are pushing to reinstate the plain old ATM cards. Here’s an article from PIRG on the topic: PIRG Consumer Fact Sheet on ATM/Debit cards (there’s no date on this page and I suspect it may have been posted a while ago, but much of the information still seems relevant.)
Stay safe and guard your debit card!