Take a pass on latest ploy to get you to switch checking accounts
A new promotion from SunTrust Bank and Delta SkyMiles offers a miles debit card with sign-up bonus of 30,000 miles.
But you'll have to open a qualifying checking account and establish a recurring direct deposit.
This offer gets you thinking about all the wrong things.
When it comes to a checking account, your first concern should be whether it meet your needs and doesn't gouge you with fees, not what the debit card offers.
And then there's the annual fee.
With credit cards, sometimes it makes sense to pay an annual fee, such as when a card offers a sign-up bonus well in excess of the fee and you’re the type of consumer who never carries a balance.
But because you're signing up for a checking account and all its possible fees, the value of debit card sign-up bonuses is unclear at best.
In this case, the annual fee is $75; the sign-up bonus is worth about $300 if you value one frequent flyer mile at 1 cent.
The eligible checking accounts at SunTrust have monthly maintenance fees ranging from $12 to $25 and minimum balance requirements ranging from $3,000 to $25,000 if you want to avoid those fees.
There are other fees to consider as well, including a monthly PC banking fee of $9.95 on the cheapest checking account if you use "free" online bill pay and $5.95 if you don’t.
To its credit, the account doesn’t stick you with expensive overdraft protection, though you could still rack up as many as six $20 returned-item fees per day.
It takes some digging to find this information before you open an account.
If the sign-up bonus for a piece of plastic is really what's driving your decision, you should also consider the security risk associated with debit cards, which offer inferior protection against unauthorized use compared with credit cards.
The SunTrust/SkyMiles card offers "Zero Liability protection," but the fine print says, “Zero Liability protection does not apply to ATM or PIN transactions not processed by MasterCard or certain commercial card transactions. You must notify us promptly of any unauthorized use.”
So how much liability do you really have?
Under federal regulations, if you report your card missing before any unauthorized activity occurs, you’ll have zero liability.
If you report the loss within two business days, your liability is limited to $50; if you report it after two business days, your liability could be as high as $500.
After 60 days of receiving a bank statement showing unauthorized activity, your liability is unlimited.
In any case, you won’t be liable for fraudulent transactions that occur after you report the theft.
More importantly, if a thief steals your money using your card information, that money disappears from your checking account.
Any payments you’ve scheduled or checks you’ve mailed might bounce. You might not have the money you need for daily expenses until you’re able to sort out the issue with your bank.
A thief who steals your credit card might temporarily use up your card limit, but they can’t wipe out your bank account.
Federal credit card regulations for fraud are simpler and offer greater protection. In a worst-case scenario, your liability is capped at $50; in a best-case scenario, it’s $0.
If you like sign-up bonuses, there are plenty of great credit card offers to consider.