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Debit card users beware: All plastic is not protected equally

Before you whip out your debit card, consider this: If some crafty thief hacks the store terminal and goes on a shopping spree using your data, you could be responsible for $500 in charges.

Debit cards do not share the same consumer protections as credit cards.

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Not all of the 40 million Target customers who had debit and credit card numbers stolen can rest easy about their liability for fraudulent charges, Ed Mierzwinski of the US Public Interest Research Group pointed out this week.

‘‘The zero liability promise the banks make is just a promise, it’s not the law,’’ he told the Senate Banking Committee. ‘‘All plastic should be equal.’’

But it’s not.

Credit cards are covered by the Truth in Lending Act, which caps liability for fraudulent charges at $50. The law also offers dispute protection and fair credit billing that allows you to stop payment on purchases.

And debt cards? The plastic tied to your bank account is governed by a different law, the Electronic Funds Transfer Act, with varying degrees of liability protection.

You are not liable for any charges if you report the loss or theft of your debit card to your bank immediately and the card has not been used. If you notify the bank within two business days, you are liable for up to $50. On day three, your liability jumps to $500. If 60 days pass and you say nothing, well kiss all that money goodbye.

‘‘After two months, if you haven’t notified the bank, you’re liable for all the money that’s taken, even if they take it from other accounts that might be linked to your debit card, like a savings account,’’ Mierzwinski explained.

Your bank must extend the notification period if you can prove ‘‘extenuating circumstances’’ (think: hospitalization) prevented you from reporting the theft in time.

US PIRG has urged the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to remedy the disparities by writing a rule that gives debit cards the same safeguards as credit cards. But it’s unclear whether that power lies with the agency.

Officials at the bureau declined to comment.

Also consider that hackers have access to cash when debit cards are compromised. Criminals could clear out your account, while your bank takes up to two weeks to investigate the fraud and reimburse you the money.

By that time, your rent or mortgage check could have bounced.

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