The Toronto Star
Friday, January 30, 1998

Bank changes debit card tune

by Valerie Lawton

John Syrtash heard plenty of reassuring words after someone used his debit card to steal almost $5,000 from his bank account.

Both the police and his insurance adjustor told him banks return money under circumstances like his.

"The first investigating officer said, `You'll get your money back in two or three days. It happens all the time'", said Syrtash.

After all, he hadn't done anything foolish - like use his birthdate as his personal ID number.

But then the Toronto Dominion Bank called. There would be no reimbursement.

Even more frustrating, said Syrtash, is that the bank seemed to be accusing him of wrongdoing.

One official suggested he'd compromised the security of his card, but no one would provide any further explanation.

This Bay Street divorce lawyer took his fight all the way up to the TD ombudsman's office. The reply was an "adamant" No.

"I haven't done anything wrong", he said. "You should be innocent until you're proven guilty."

Surveillance videotape showed a man Syrtash doesn't recognize using the card to withdraw cash from a bank machine.

The crook also used it at McDonald's, an Italian restaurant, Canadian Tire, Footlocker, and a host of other stores.

The bank phoned Syrtash back after I called their public relations department to ask about the case.

He'd get the cash back. The earlier decision wasn't final after all.

"We've reconsidered the file", explained TD spokesperson Cathy Bertini.

"We reconsidered it and we felt we could actually say that it was indeed fraud. He protected his PIN. He protected his card as best he could. That was the conclusion."

Syrtash's complaint was never about the money. His insurance covered the loss and he will now get the reimbursement.

The problem here is that the bank is making decisions about who gets money back without explaining its criteria for doing so.

Toronto Dominion Bank's contract doesn't offer much in the way of protection or rights to customers whose bank cards are stolen.

"We are not responsible for the unauthorized use of the service", it says.

"You are responsible for the full amount of all unauthorized activity . . . which occurs before we receive notification that your PIN or password or card was lost or stolen or that your PIN or password may have become known by an unauthorized person."

That part is pretty straightforward.

"If they had an iron-clad rule - nobody gets their money back, period, I could live with that", said Syrtash.

But here's the part he thinks is unfair and leaves people at the bank's mercy:

"We have the discretion to relieve you from any responsibility for unauthorized use if you unintentionally contributed to the unauthorized use and you co-operate with an investigation that results in a finding of liability on the part of another person."

That sounds pretty arbitrary. And it looks like it was applied in a pretty arbitrary way here.

The bank's explanation about why Syrtash was initially told there'd be no reimbursement?

Investigators were skeptical because the crook guessed his PIN on the first try.

It seems to me that getting it right would be a pretty simple matter if someone had watched Syrtash use the card before taking it.

I agree with Syrtash that the banks should spell out their criteria for deciding which customers get stuck with the tab. Even general guidelines would help make things more fair.

Syrtash also had the right to an explanation when the bank was saying no.

His story is also a warning to bank customers who assume they won't be held liable if someone steals their debit card.

Debit cards are a huge convenience, but they come with some financial danger. Your bank may not decide to cover the losses if you're the victim of crime.

Protect yourself:

Consumer Beat appears Friday. You can reach Valerie Lawton at The Toronto Star, One Yonge St., 5th floor, Toronto M5E 1E6, or fax (416) 865-3630.

Copyright © 1998 by The Toronto Star. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.