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COURSEY: Swiping your card

One of the first things I did Monday morning was clear the weekend's receipts off the top of my dresser.

Bank deposit, drinks, dinner, grocery store, bike shop – a handful of transactions crumpled into a ball and tossed into the trash can in the corner of my bedroom.

Then I went outside and got the paper, which greeted me with news of an ATM “skimming” scam at the Lucky store in Petaluma. Somebody was literally “swiping” customers' debit cards.

And all of a sudden I was having second thoughts about those discarded receipts.

It's not the same thing, I know.

The scam that has plagued some 20 Bay Area Lucky stores over the past couple of weeks involves inserting specific equipment on or in an electronic debit-card reader in order to gather data from the card, and possibly the personal identification number associated with it.

That's what Petaluma police think may have happened to seven people who reported as much as $1,000 had been withdrawn from their bank accounts without authorization.

But the story about the skimming scheme reminded me of how cavalier I've become with my debit card.

As a member of the generation that once paid only by cash or check, having an ATM card in my wallet at first made me paranoid. It is, after all, a plastic key to my bank account.

I guarded it like I would a fat wad of cash. I would never hand it to a waiter or clerk who could take it out of my sight. Any significant transaction would be put on the credit card, not the debit. When I did use it, I would stuff receipts into an envelope and tuck them away in my desk for future reference.

But that has changed.

In the past year I've grown complacent about the debit card. After getting comfortable swiping it here and swiping it there for minor and medium purchases, it's become easy to hand it over for a larger transaction, figuring I won't have to write a check to the credit card company later on.

After watching it disappear into ATMs on the dusty streets of a Mexican beach town, it doesn't seem odd to let the bartender at my favorite Santa Rosa pub hang onto it until it's time to pay the tab. After watching that envelope of receipts fill up without ever having to refer to it for past transactions, it seems silly to hang on to those records; I just crumple them and toss them in the trash on Monday morning.

Until I read Petaluma Police Sgt. Steve Nelson's warning: “Be careful where you're using your card until we can figure out where this is coming from,” he said about the ATM scam.

Good advice, but consider the implications. If it's not safe to use your debit card at the grocery store, where is it safe?

Chris Coursey's blog offers a community commentary and forum, from issues of the day to the ingredients of life in Sonoma County.

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