Kevin Hunt: How To Make Gas Stations Honor Cash Price On Debit Purchase


Payment options, cash or credit, are marked clearly at local gas stations. But how does your local fill-up treat plastic cash, the debit card?

A debit card looks like a credit card, but banks treat it like a cash transaction. A consumer receives no "credit," equivalent to a small loan, for any debit-card transaction. Debit is not credit.

Why, then, do some gas stations charge higher "credit card" prices for debit-card purchases? Because they can, according to state regulations, but only if they post signs on the face of the gas pump and at the cash register declaring the debit-as-credit charge.

Claudette Carveth, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Consumer Protection, says signs should include wording such as: "Debit cards and ATM cards will be charged at the credit-card price."

When there's no sign, however, a gas station must treat debit cards like cash. Next time, check for signs. If there are none, your debit card deserves the posted cash price. If the gas station attendant refuses, or the gas pump charges the higher credit price, file a complaint with the DCP at dcp.foodandstandards@ct.gov. Include the date of purchase, gas station name, town, price paid and any other relevant information. (And also send the information to khunt@courant.com.)

"The agency works to bring stations into compliance and seeks reimbursement for the wronged consumer," says Carveth.

Debit Or Credit?

Federal regulations protect the consumer from fraudulent charges greater than $50 when using a credit card or a debit card with a signature. If you report a lost or stolen credit card before it is used, the Fair Billing Act protects you from any unauthorized charges. If your credit card number, but not the card, is stolen, you're not responsible for any fraudulent charge. (The major credit cards typically offer full fraud liability protection.)

The Electronic Funds Transfer Act protects debit cards, though liability depends on how quickly the card holder reports it has been lost or stolen. If it's reported within two business days, your liability is $50. If it's reported more than two days later but fewer than 60 calendar days after your statement has been sent to you, liability is $500. Those who do not report a lost or stolen debit card for more than 60 days could lose everything a thief finds in your ATM or debit-card account and other accounts linked to the debit card.

If your debit card number, but not the card, is stolen, you're not responsible for fraudulent charges if you report them within 60 days of your statement being sent. Check with your bank for additional coverage: Bank of America, among others, reimburses customers for any fraudulent debit charges.

Whenever possible, do not use a debit card for an Internet purchase. It's also safer for debit-card users to sign for purchases. Save the PIN for ATM use only.

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