Is My Debit Card PIN Number Safe When I Use it at Stores?

PIN vs. Signature

Debit cards can be used in two ways to make purchases in store. Cashiers may ask for your signature in a transaction that resembles a credit card purchase. Otherwise, you’ll be asked to punch in your secret PIN into the cashier’s keypad. This is a key distinction because the mode of authorization affects your liability should fraud occur.


One risk to the safety of your debit card PIN number in stores is old-fashioned spying. As you chat with the cashier and fumble with your wallet, customers around you may be quickly memorizing or photographing your debit card information and PIN keystrokes using their cell phone cameras or hidden video cameras. Using this information, criminals can then make purchases or, worse, clean out your bank account.


Another in-store risk for your PIN number is the keypad itself. Some criminals have become adept at tinkering with store card keypads so that your sensitive financial information is “skimmed” and captured when you swipe and punch. In the past, retail stores have had to remove keypad machines that have been tampered, with resulting in numerous fraudulent charges for customers.


Watch out for employees, too. Employees might also observe your debit card account number and PIN keystrokes. Beware of workers who offer to type your PIN number in for you; this creates a security risk since not only will the employee know your number, nearby customers might be eavesdropping.


If you report your debit card lost or stolen, there’s no liability for resulting charges to your account (although these charges would be unlikely, since your card will probably be frozen or deactivated upon your request after reporting its disappearance). If fraudulent charges to your debit card were authorized with a forged signature, you may have zero financial liability for the charges. Charges using your PIN number might carry a liability of $50.


Always sign your debit card on the back to discourage fraudulent use. Never share your PIN number with anyone, and never write your PIN number down—certainly, never write it on the back of the debit card itself. Avoid selecting obvious PIN numbers, such as “1234,” the last four digits of your account number printed on the card, the card’s expiration date or your birth date. Don’t punch in your PIN number if the situation feels suspicious or if someone is blatantly watching you.

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