Some debit cards issuers offer zero-liability protection against fraud and theft.
What you may not know is that to reap those benefits, you may have to use the card with a signature instead of a PIN, says Linda Sherry, director of national priorities for Consumer Action, a national consumer education and advocacy group based in San Francisco.
Federal law limits personal liability for unauthorized transactions to $50 for credit cards, but offers more limited fraud protection for debit cards.
How to protect yourself: Find out if your bank offers theft and fraud protection. Get specific. Under what circumstances is it honored? How do you have to use the card? What's your timetable for reporting the loss?
"Most of these promises have limits and asterisks," says Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director with U.S. Public Interest Research Groups.
As for disputed funds, some banks will put them back in your account, provisionally, while they investigate. Others will wait until their inquiries are completed.
"We still like to tell people if they're ordering things online or over the phone, they might want to use a credit card because they have superior charge-back protection," says Sherry. "When something goes wrong with a credit card, you're not out the money."