Debit cards make it easier to use your checking account to make purchases and eliminate the need to carry cash. While that makes a debit card safer than cash, your account can be drained if the wrong person gets your card. Your personal identification number, or PIN, is designed to make it harder for someone to rip you off, but it's not foolproof. Some thieves know how to bypass the PIN. That's all the more reason to guard your card and your PIN.
It takes some know-how for a criminal to set it up, but he can use a skimmer to read your card. The skimmer is placed in the slot where you insert your card, and it can read the information from the magnetic stripe. A crook can also use an altered keypad in the store terminal to pick up your card information. In addition, a strategically placed pinhole camera can watch your fingers punching in the PIN number. With at least one of these tools in place, a high-tech criminal can park across the street with a laptop and snatch the wireless signal. Outdoor gas pumps are a favorite target for this type of crime because of unlimited public access and a lack of supervision.
Dishonest Store Clerks
An unscrupulous store clerk can place a skimmer or a second scanner behind the counter because she has full access to the pay-point machine. While you're not looking, she can scan the card -- once for the transaction and once to collect your card information. Beware of stores where the cashier slides the card for you; do it yourself whenever possible.
Over the Shoulder
The easiest way for someone to get your PIN number is the low-tech way. Anyone can capture your number simply by watching you enter it on the keyboard. A thief who watches will also notice where you put your card when you're done, and a simple snatch-and-grab gives him full access to your money. When you use your card, use your body to block the view of bystanders or use your other hand to screen your activity. Watch anyone behind you, and don't be afraid to ask someone to move if he gets too close.
Wallets and Smartphones
If you write your PIN on a slip of paper to remember it, you're inviting theft. If your wallet falls into the wrong hands, a criminal has your card and your PIN. You also take a chance if you keep your PIN on your smartphone. A simple search through your notepad application -- or even a cloud-based notekeeping system -- can dig up the PIN in seconds. If you must keep your numbers on your phone, lock the phone with a password. That's inconvenient, but it'll keep your PIN much safer. Shred all documents that have your PIN on it and don't use something obvious like your birthday or 1234. Also, don't write your PIN on your card. Memorize the number.
No PIN Needed
While you can protect your PIN by punching "Credit" on a machine and signing for the purchase, so can a criminal. Just like you, she won't even need your PIN for that transaction. She may not have that crucial number, but she can tell what your signature looks like by checking the back of the card.
Al Bondigas is an award-winning newspaperman who started writing professionally in 1985. His print credits include the "Mohave Valley Daily News" and "The Mohave County Standard." Bondigas studied journalism at San Bernardino Valley College in California.