Tips for Using a Debit Card Online

A debit card might not be your best option

Man using debit card on computer
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Your debit card makes it easy to spend from your checking account, and debit cards are accepted almost everywhere credit cards are accepted. But if you have the option to use a credit card, it’s probably safer to use credit — especially when shopping online.

How to Use a Debit Card Online

  1. Enter the number: Provide your debit card number, which is a 16-digit number if you have Visa, Mastercard, or Discover. Again, you can enter a debit card number even if the merchant asks for a “credit card.”
  1. Verify details: In addition to a card number, most merchants require some sort of verification to reduce the chances of fraud. To do so, enter the security code (usually on the back of your card) and any address information required – the zip code you enter must match the address on file with your bank.

Unlike purchases at a checkout counter, you will not need to provide your PIN. Online purchases will be processed as a “credit” transaction, and funds will be deducted from your checking account within a few business days.

Debit accepted? There are a few situations when an actual credit card is required (some hotel and rental car agencies will only accept a credit card – or they’ll lock up funds in your checking account), but debit cards are fine for most transactions. Most online services like iTunes and Netflix will accept either, and they won't know or care that you're using a debit card.

Debit cards are good tools for keeping your costs low and managing your money. They don’t come with the high monthly fees commonly found on credit cards, and they don’t allow you to rack up debt at high interest rates. However, there are benefits to using credit cards.

When Credit Cards Are Better

Just because you can order online with a debit card online doesn’t mean you should.

 Shopping online exposes you to certain risks, especially the risk that your card information will be stolen (that risk also exists in brick-and-mortar stores, but it’s not as easy for hackers to snatch your data).

Direct link to checking: Your debit card pulls funds directly from your checking account. If somebody uses your card number to make fraudulent purchases, your account will get drained. That means it’ll be harder (or impossible) to pay for your expenses, like rent, mortgage, utilities, and food.

If your card information is used fraudulently, you might be protected under federal law, but getting that money back into your bank account is a painful and slow process.

If running out of money in your checking account would be a problem, use a credit card for everyday purchases instead.

Credit cards create a buffer: A credit card creates a debt that you have to repay, but it doesn’t pull money out of your checking account without your knowledge. Thieves spend the card issuer’s money instead of yours, and you can get everything cleared up while keeping your checking account untouched. In other words, credit cards add an extra layer between thieves and your money. What’s more, when your credit card is used fraudulently, your liability is limited to $50, while debit card fraud can cost a lot more (especially if you don’t report fraudulent activity quickly enough).

How to Stay Safe Using Your Debit Card

To reduce the likelihood of problems, follow some basic security rules.

  1. Look for the lock: Make sure you’re shopping on a secure website, especially when it’s time to enter your card number. Look for the lock icon in your browser and pay attention to any security warnings that pop up.
  2. Monitor your account: It’s always a good idea to keep tabs on your money, and it’s especially important if you’re sharing account information online. Check on your accounts regularly (once per month is a bare minimum — more often is better). Set up alerts in your account so you know when money goes out.
  3. Use secure connections: Mobile devices and free Wi-Fi make it easy to get things done. But you never know how secure a public hotspot is. If you’re going to access financial accounts or punch in card numbers, save those tasks for when you’re at home or work and you know your traffic is safe.

    Debit Card Protection

    Federal law offers some protection against fraud in your checking account, but you have to report trouble as soon as possible. If you spot the problem and notify your bank, your liability can be limited:

    • You’re liable for up to $50 if you call your bank within two days of fraudulent use.
    • You’re responsible for up to $500 if you report the problem within 60 days.
    • You can be held 100% responsible if you don’t report the problem within 60 days.

    Some debit cards come with additional protection from the card issuer, so you’re safer than federal law requires. These services are often called “zero liability” policies or similar.

    However, your card still pulls from your checking account – so you’ll have to wait at least a few days to get your money back. If your checking account is running on empty, that’s going to cause a domino effect.

    If you're using a prepaid debit card (as opposed to one that came with your checking account), you might have less protection than described above — so be sure to research your card's policies before using it online.

    Is Online Really More Dangerous?

    Using a debit card online isn’t the only way to get ripped off. Thieves can steal your card information from brick-and-mortar stores, ATMs, gas pumps, or just about anywhere. They might pull it off with the help of a skimming device or by hacking into a merchant’s payment system remotely.

    Given all that, you shouldn’t necessarily fear punching in your debit card number online — shopping is quite safe on secured websites. But if you have the option, a credit card is better for everyday spending (and online purchases) — just be sure to pay the card off every month so you don’t pay finance charges. Especially if you’re not familiar with the merchant or you’re not shopping at a major website, it’s risky to provide any type of card number. If you want to be extra safe, add another layer between you and the merchant and pay with PayPal or a similar (but trustworthy) service.