Don’t laugh if I’m wrapped in tinfoil the next time we cross paths.
Just know this: I have a good reason â€” other than style and economy â€” to look like an alien mummy from a 1950s B movie.
To understand, you’ll have to read this column. You may even learn something useful â€” if you care about your money and your cyber identity.
I live by my debit card. It’s how I pay for nearly everything I buy. I used it about 80 times in December. At the gas station, the grocery store and fast-food joints. At big-box stores, ATMs and online. And I’m not alone. Americans make more than $1 trillion in debit card purchases annually.
Turns out I do everything consumer protection experts say you shouldn’t (more on that later), even though I try to be careful. I hang onto my card. I watch receipts. I check gas pumps and ATMs for scanners trying to steal my data.
But I got the call last week. Someone got me. I’m still not sure how they swiped enough information to make a copy of my card, but I think I got scanned. More specifically, I think someone scanned my rear pocket and stole my debit card info while it was still in my wallet. Since then, two people have told me it has happened to them or someone they know.
Someone standing near you, I’ve since learned, can read the data from your debit card with a cell phone, tablet or laptop. Then they stick that info onto the magnetic strip of another card and off they go spending your money.
The call came while I was eating lunch Dec. 30 with some co-workers. Not recognizing the number, I let it go to voice mail and finished my tikka masala and naan.
Of course I used my debit card to pay and leave a tip before stepping outside to listen to the message. “Suspicious activity” had been detected on my debit card.
My credit union is next to The Indianapolis Star’s new offices in Circle Centre mall. So I stopped by on my way back to work. The teller immediately called a security center that monitors debit card activity.
“No, he’s here right now,” I heard her say, “and he has his card with him.”
Someone was using my card in Michigan while I stood there.
Whoever it was made two purchases â€” one for $55, the other for $53.93 â€” at a Wal-Mart in a Detroit suburb before the teller could cancel my card and put a stop to the fraud.
Reality set in quickly. I was down more than $100. I didn’t know whether other charges would show up. And I would have to make do with cash for the next week or so.
Even more troubling, it looked as if I’d have to make a lifestyle change. Time to follow the advice of the experts, although I didn’t exactly know what that was at the time. So I looked on the Internet, but I’m still not convinced how much I can â€” or will â€” alter my buying habits.
Meanwhile, I followed the teller’s advice and filed a police report. If I did, she said, the two charges would be credited back to my account.
The unfortunate officer who got stuck with me looked sheepish and said there really wasn’t much he could do. “I don’t expect you to race off to Michigan and hunt down the dastard,” I assured him. “I just need a police report, so I can get my money back.” He looked relieved and gave me a case number.
Here’s where I offer kudos to the folks at my credit union. It’s a place where they know your name and account numbers are only four digits long. They have someone who watches debit card transactions tied to their accounts like a hawk. And they didn’t have to wipe the slate clean, but they did.
Debit cards don’t typically provide the same protections as credit cards. And if you don’t act quickly after discovering fraud, you can be on the hook for as much as $500 for stuff someone else bought.
Your liability is limited to $50 if you report a lost or stolen card or suspicious activity within two days. After that, it goes up to $500. And if you fail to report an unauthorized transaction that shows up on your bank statement within 60 days of getting that statement, you could lose everything in your account.
Experts say you can save yourself those headaches if you are more careful with your debit card. That means using it far less â€” and at fewer locations â€” than most of us do.
Computer and Internet expert Kim Komando, in a column last year in USA TODAY, listed four places you should never use your debit card. I was guilty of all four: gas stations, restaurants, retail stores and online.