Person using debit card at gas station
aabejon/Getty Images

Debit cards and credit cards seem like equally good payment options, but there is one critical difference: How unauthorized charges are handled.

If you spot fraudulent charges on your credit card bill, you can alert the issuer, decline the charges and relax. With a debit card, your money disappears instantly from your checking account and it can be tough — or impossible — to get it back.

Even clear-cut cases of fraud where victims are shielded from liability by consumer protection laws can cause significant hardship for debt card users.

While fraud is always a possibility, being careful about where you use your debit card can help you keep your money out of trouble. Here’s where you should be on your guard with your debit card. And if you’re looking for a safer place to park your hard-earned cash, an online savings account is a great option.

1. Outdoor ATMs

Some outdoor ATMs present the perfect opportunity for thieves to skim users’ debit cards, says Chris McGoey, a Los Angeles-based security consultant.

Skimming is a method of capturing a bank customer’s card information by running it through a machine that reads the card’s magnetic stripe. Those machines are often placed over the real card slots at ATMs and other card terminals.

You’re better off using an ATM inside a retail outlet or other high-traffic, well-lit place.

Even the card terminals that card users must swipe to get into ATM vestibules are being used by criminals as a skimming site, says Julie Conroy, research director for the retail banking practice at Aite Group, a Boston-based financial services research firm. You can spot ATM skimmers by checking for ATM components that look beat-up or askew, she says.

2. Gas stations

Gas stations are another danger zone for debit card users. The payment terminals at the pumps have many of the features card fraudsters love, Conroy says.

“In a gas station where you do have a whole bunch of pay-at-the-pump (transactions) and minimal supervision, it’s pretty easy for a bad guy to put a skimming device on and put a little pinpoint camera there and compromise debit cards that way,” Conroy says.

Thieves often use small cameras to capture footage of debit card users entering their personal identification numbers (PINs). Conroy says that even if a thief doesn’t manage to get your PIN from such a device, he still may be able to duplicate the card’s magnetic stripe and use it for “sign and swipe” Visa or MasterCard transactions.

With the high potential for fraud in pay-at-the-pump debit transactions, it makes sense to use cash or credit cards when you fill up.

3. Online purchases

Debit cards are a convenient way to buy products online, especially for those who don’t like to use credit cards. Unfortunately, the web is one of the most dangerous places to make purchases, Conroy says.

“Online is the No. 1 place where consumers should not use their debit cards,” she says. “It’s susceptible at so many points. The consumer could have malware on their computer, so it could be at their endpoint that the data get compromised. It could be a man-in-the-middle attack where somebody is eavesdropping on their communications via the wireless network. And then at the other end, that data goes into a database at the merchant.

“As we’ve seen with some of the higher-profile breach events … that data is going to be vulnerable if (they’re) not properly cared for,” Conroy says.

Aside from the potential for hacking at many different points in a transaction, a fundamental problem with using debit cards online is it’s impossible to know who is handling your information.

4. Bars and restaurants

“Would you care for a side of fraud with that order?”

Restaurant servers don’t ask that question, but they might as well, considering it’s standard practice for wait staff to take customers’ debit cards behind closed doors.

“Any place where the card is out of hand” can increase the chances of fraud, McGoey says. “The guy comes to your table, takes your card and disappears for a while, so he or she has privacy,” giving that person the opportunity to copy your card information.

Even restaurants without sit-down service can present a threat. Conroy says using debit cards to order delivery can be risky because cashiers tend to keep customer payment information on file. That may make future orders more convenient, but small businesses rarely take the steps necessary to safeguard payment information, she says.