In a survey conducted by the payments system company ACI Worldwide, one in four respondents reported being victims of debit card fraud. This category of losses is partially due to "friendly fraud."
This intriguing term has two different definitions, depending on the victim. If it's an online vendor, it implies that a customer has initiated a chargeback despite receiving merchandise in good order. When a debit card holder is the victim, "friendly fraud" implies that a checking account has been accessed via the card by a friend or a family member.
Doug Johnson, vice president of risk management policy for the American Bankers Association, said that someone who knows the cardholder is more likely than a professional thief to withdraw small amounts over a long period of time. This type of activity often goes unnoticed by both the cardholder and the bank.
"Banks look for unusual transactions," Johnson said. "If it's less than $100 it may not be unusual, so it's difficult for the bank to detect."
So what steps can consumers take to protect themselves? According to Johnson, it's largely a matter of being vigilant.
"Smaller transactions can be perpetrated by family members, so it's important to ensure that your PIN number is not known widely, maybe not known by anybody but you," he said. "So think carefully before you let anyone know your PIN number. Also, destroy extra cards that you don't intend for anyone else to use."
Johnson also stressed the importance of continuing to exercise common-sense caution at the teller machine. After all, the professional thieves will always be out there, looking for a new mark.
"When you're at the ATM, use ones that you're familiar with, so if it's different-looking, you can verify it with the bank," he said. "A brochure box can be posted by criminals with a camera in it, so make sure you shield via your hand so people can't see you input your PIN number."
These precautions may seem like part of a slippery slope to paranoid hunts for identity thieves under one's own bed. Unfortunately, in the information age, it's increasingly becoming the price consumers need to pay in order to have the convenience of a debit card and the security of knowing no one else will use it.
"There's a necessity for individuals to monitor accounts very closely, so think of the Internet as your friend, because you can check your account regularly and check transactions," Johnson said.
"As soon as you see unauthorized transactions, alert your bank," he advised. "Security is an active partnership between the bank and the customer."