Debit vs. credit cards: Which is safer to swipe?

December 20, 2013: 6:25 AM ET
4 steps to ensure your credit info is safe
NEW YORK (CNNMoney)

While the tens of millions of Target shoppers who had their credit and debit card information stolen likely won't be on the hook for any fraudulent transactions that may occur, debit card users could face much bigger headaches than credit card users.

That's because debit and credit cards are treated differently by consumer protection laws. Under federal law, your personal liability for fraudulent charges on a credit card can't exceed $50. But if a fraudster uses your debit card, you could be liable for $500 or more, depending on how quickly you report it.

"I know people love their debit cards. But man oh man, they are loaded with holes when it comes to fraud," said John Ulzheimer, credit expert at CreditSesame.com, a credit management website.

Related: 4 things to do after your credit card has been hacked

Plus, if someone uses your credit card, the charge is often credited back to your account immediately after it's reported, Ulzheimer said.

Yet, if a crook uses your debit card, not only can they drain your bank account, but it can take up to two weeks for the bank to investigate the fraud and reimburse your account.

"In the meantime, you might have to pay your rent, your utilities and other bills," said Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. The organization recommends that consumers stick to credit cards as much as possible.

Related: How not to get hacked

Whichever card you decide to swipe, here are ways to protect yourself from scammers.

Be vigilant with your accounts: The Target (TGT) hack is just the latest in a long history of data breaches, and it likely won't be the last.

As a result, you should check your debit and credit account activity at least every few days and keep an eye out for any unfamiliar transactions. If you notice anything fishy, notify your bank or credit card company immediately.

"Waiting until the end of the month to check out [your] credit card statement for fraudulent use is a relic of the past," Ulzheimer said. "Fraud is a real-time crime, and we as consumers have to be constantly engaged."

Set your own fraud controls: Financial institutions have their own internal fraud controls, but some transactions can slip through the cracks, said Al Pascual, senior analyst of security risk and fraud at Javelin Strategy & Research.

Many financial institutions will let you set alerts for account transactions. Even better, some allow you to block transactions that are out of the ordinary for you, such as for online purchases at a certain kind of retailer or for any purchases over $500.

Related: Biggest credit card hacks

"We believe that consumers are going to know best as to how to protect their account," he said. "They know their own behaviors.

Hackers' next target: Your pacemaker

Watch out for fraud hotspots: You should be especially wary of using a debit card online and at retailers more vulnerable to fraud.

Gas stations and ATM machines are hotspots for so-called "skimmers," machines that scammers install to capture your card information. Watch out for ATM parts that look unusual and always cover your hand when typing your PIN in case a camera is watching, said Shirley Inscoe, a senior analyst with the Aite Group.

Don't let your guard down: If you think your information has been compromised, don't assume everything's fine after a few months. Stolen card information is often sold to a variety of groups on the black market who may hold onto it for months or even years.

"Many times these fraud rings will wait until the news dies down and people have forgotten about it before they use that data," Inscoe said. "It may not be used until next winter, so it really is a good idea for people to monitor their activity."

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