checkout counterEven though the most recent consumer credit reports show credit card debt is declining, consumer's debit cards are getting quite a workout. Debit card transactions recently surpassed credit card transactions for the first time ever.

Experts are forecasting debit card transactions to surge even further past their credit card siblings on Black Friday -- and caution that consumers need to be cautious when wielding their debit cards (on transactions requiring a PIN number) this holiday shopping season.

"Consumers are trying to keep their credit card balances low," Carrie Coghill Kuntz, spokeswoman for CreditFYI.com said in a press release. "So many are using debit cards."

There is a difference
It's important to understand, even if your debit/credit card has one of those cute little VISA logos plastered on the bottom right side, if you complete a transaction using your PIN (personal identification number) number, you're NOT covered under VISA's liability policy.

And those PIN-based transactions - not ones where you swipe your debit/credit card and opt to complete the transaction as a "credit" purchase - can wind up costing you a lot more than you'd expect.

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"Debit cards aren't much different from carrying cash wherever you go -- so you need to be careful," Coghill Kuntz said.

Experts do think it's best to leave your debit card at home on Black Friday. "With retailers trying to ring the register at a record rate on Black Friday, it's a good time to keep your debit card at home. On that day, and throughout the holiday season, leaving the debit card at home can save you headaches later on," she said.

But, if toting your debit card to Black Friday sales (and those throughout the entire season) is your only option, here's how you can keep it safe.

Read up on refunds
Unlike transactions made by cash or credit card, debit card (PIN-based) purchases that are returned or disputed might not be refunded immediately. That's because debit card purchases fall under Federal Reserve Board Regulation E, which makes them instantaneous transactions with third parties. "So you won't receive any money back from a mistaken transaction until after the dispute is resolved," said Coghill Kuntz. You could be stuck waiting for 10 days to get your money back.

Make sure to hang onto all receipts, too. Although it won't speed up a refund, it will make obtaining one easier.

Stay away from surfing
Paying via debit card (by using your PIN) is the equivalent of wiring the retailer cash. And if while shopping online you accidentally put too many items in your virtual basket, or hit your browser's "back" button and reload the transaction, you might be out of luck when trying to get a refund.

Act fast
If you learn your debit card has been used fraudulently, report it to your bank (or the card's issuer) immediately. Waiting longer than two business days can inflate your liability to as much as $500.

Don't bank on your bank
Unlike a credit card issuer, some banks don't monitor your spending habits. Which means if your debit card is used suspiciously or appears to be stolen, your bank won't shut down your debit card. That means the responsibility to monitor spending and suspicious behavior falls squarely on your shoulders.

Check your credit score
Scan your score and full credit report before shopping. That will ensure you're starting out the shopping season with a factual report and with the highest score possible. And give you a good starting point to detect any fraudulent activity that may occur during the holiday season.


Gina Roberts-Grey is a freelance writer specializing in consumer issues.

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