Tips for Using a Debit Card Online

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© The Balance, 2018

Your debit card makes it easy to use 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 In Lieu of a Credit Card Online

  1. Enter the number: Provide your debit card number, which is a 16-digit number if you have a Visa, Mastercard, or Discover. You can always enter a debit card number even if the merchant asks for a credit card.
  2. Verify details: In addition to a card number, most merchants require some sort of verification to reduce the chances of fraud. So, enter the security code (usually on the back of your card) and any address information required such as your zip code which 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.

    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. However, there are benefits to using credit cards.

    When Credit Cards Are Better

    Just because you can order online with a debit card doesn’t mean you should. Shopping online exposes you to certain risks, especially the risk that your 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.

    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 necessary expenses, like rent, mortgage payments, 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.

    Also, 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. 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.

    How to Stay Safe Using Your Debit Card

    To reduce the likelihood of problems, follow these 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 your accounts regularly (once per month at a bare minimum—more often is better). And set up alerts in your account so you know when money goes out.
    1. 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 home or work and 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 immediately, your liability can be limited as follows:

    • 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 percent 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 a similar name.

    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—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 Wi-Fi is available. Thieves might pull it off with the help of a skimming device or by hacking into a merchant’s payment system remotely.

    Despite all the hazards, it's become an online retail world so you shouldn’t fear using your debit card number online—shopping is quite safe on secured websites. However, if you have the option, a credit card is better for everyday spending (and online purchases).