If your debit card is stolen, a thief can clean out your bank account in a matter of minutes, particularly if you don't notice the missing card right away. Several federal laws limit your liability if your card is stolen, but you'll have to ensure you properly report the theft to avoid losing money.
Debit Card Thieves
Stealing a debit card or using a debit card number to make unauthorized transactions is a crime in every state. The specific crime the thief will be charged with depends upon your state's laws and the specific nature of the theft. The thief could be charged with credit card fraud, theft, forgery or some combination of all of these crimes, each of which is a felony. In Texas, for example, a debit card thief could be charged with credit card fraud and get up to two years in prison. You can also sue the person who stole your card to recover any damages, and your card company can sue the thief to recover any damages it sustains.
Liability is a measure of how much you have to pay out of your own pocket for debit card theft. Under federal law, you're not liable for anything if you report the theft before the thief makes a transaction. If you report the theft within two days of learning about the loss, you're liable for $50, but if you wait between two and 60 days, you're liable for $500. If you wait beyond 60 days, you're liable for everything. Your credit card company can make your liability lower by, for example, offering zero liability cards. If someone uses your debit card number, but your card is not lost, you are not liable for those transactions if you report them within 60 days of your statement being sent to you.
Your debit card company may have specific policies for reporting the loss, and you'll need to follow these to minimize your liability. The Federal Trade Commission advises calling the card company immediately, then following up in writing. This way you have a record that you notified the card company in case they try to make you liable for the theft. Checking your bank account regularly can increase the likelihood that you'll notice theft early, reducing your liability.
One unfortunate fact of identity and debit card theft is that sometimes it's a family member who does it. Your child might snatch your debit card, not understanding that it costs you money, or a relative with an addiction could get desperate and use your card. The same laws apply to theft by family members as theft by strangers. However, if a family member steals your card, you'll have to report them to the card company, making it possible that they could be arrested. Otherwise, you'll be stuck covering any costs of the theft yourself.
Van Thompson is an attorney and writer. A former martial arts instructor, he holds bachelor's degrees in music and computer science from Westchester University, and a juris doctor from Georgia State University. He is the recipient of numerous writing awards, including a 2009 CALI Legal Writing Award.