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  • Debit cards are increasingly more popular than credit cards with American consumers, for several reasons.

    First of all, using a debit card connected to a checking or savings account is more like "real money" to the consumer, who may be wary of racking up enormous credit card debt.

    Unlike credit cards, debit transactions are withdrawn (usually) immediately from funds that the consumer actually possesses. It is estimated that debit transactions are now actually on a par with cash transactions, each with a third of all purchases. An extra perk to debit card usage is that there are generally no fees assessed for their usage, making them "just as good as cash" in the marketplace for savvy shoppers.

    And of course, debit cards don't have pesky interest rates or monthly bills. The downside to debit card use is that, unless you carefully maintain your checkbook or continuously maintain a large enough balance that you don't have to, you may incur sizeable insufficient funds fees for overspending what your account holds. One way to avoid this is to link up your checking account to a savings account or specifically earmarked credit card for overdraft protection.

    On the other end of the spectrum, however, there are some comparative downsides to debit usage. First, debit cards just don't offer the incentives that credit cards do, including cash back, rebates, and discounts. More importantly, people who can afford to pay off their balances in full each month generally enjoy a "float" time of several weeks between when they make their purchases and when they are liable for paying them, even without penalty of interest. Debit transactions are withdrawn immediately, or almost immediately. For this same reason, credit cards offer greater protection against faulty merchandise or services, as you can opt to withhold payment until you are satisfied in some cases. Debit transactions pretty much ensure that a merchant will have your money in hand before you find some defect with their goods. The law actually holds the side of credit card users, who can expect zero-liability protection against fraud and defective goods and services, as well as access to their money while a transaction is in dispute, as spelled out in the Fair Credit Billing Act. Most debit card merchant policies offer similar protection, but these are only policy, and liable to change.

    You can counteract debit card theft, but only if you take speedy action. Under the Electronic Fund Transfer Act, you can dispute unauthorized withdrawals from your account when you discover them, and covers you to some extent. If you catch a missing or stolen debit card within two days of its loss, you are only responsible for up to $50 of any unauthorized expenditures. If you don't miss if for more than two days, you may be stuck paying up to $500. Wait 60 days, and your protection is nil - which means that you could easily drain your checking, savings, and overdraft reserves paying for some thief to take your card on a shopping spree.

    Overall, the debit versus credit question is one with many aspects to consider. A good rule of thumb is to only use your debit card at reliable merchants you know and trust, where you can inspect purchases before taking ownership of them and enjoy the ease and convenience of making small purchases without fees or bills. Large expenditures and those made on the internet or phone may be safest put on a credit card, where your protection will be greater.

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