Southwest Ticket Debacle Illustrates Problems With Using Debit Cards For Big Purchases

A week ago, Southwest Airlines ticked off an awful lot of customers when a disastrous Facebook promotion resulted in people being charged multiple times — upwards of 24 or 25 times — for each ticket. While the airline responded quickly and says it will make things right with customers, many of those who paid with debit cards are still waiting to get their money back.

One Consumerist reader and her husband each bought tickets on different flights during the promotion. She was stung for $5356.80 when Southwest charged her nine times, while her husband ended up being wrongfully charged $13,156.80 after his credit card was hit 24 times for the same amount. By Wednesday, the $13K had been returned while the $5356 was still in refund limbo.


Because she had paid for her ticket using a debit card while her husband had paid with a credit card, and unfortunately credit cards provide much better protections in these situations than debit cards.

When you swipe your credit card, no actual money has been transferred yet. It’s merely a promise by one party to pay the other. So when there is an error, it’s merely a matter of reversing the transaction.

But your debit card is, as the name implies, debiting your actual bank account and moving the funds electronically. Thus, these transactions are ruled by the Electronic Fund Transfer Act.

We’ve had a number of readers write to us regarding the Southwest debacle claiming that the EFTA requires banks to correct an error within one business day.

Well, yes and no.

True, the act does say that banks must correct “the error, if any, within one business day after determining that an error occurred.”

We bolded those two words in the quote because the EFTA also states that “A financial institution shall investigate promptly and… shall determine whether an error occurred within 10 business days of receiving a notice of error.”

So that means that the banks actually have 10 full business days to investigate the report before deciding whether or not it’s an error. And only then does the 1-day clock start ticking for the bank to correct the error.

In the meantime, some people whose bank accounts are wildly overdrawn because of Southwest’s little glitch are now having to delay payments they would normally make from their checking account — you know, things like rent, food, utility bills.

The credit card protections are actually in the banks’ best interest because they prevent the banks from paying out money to merchants that they will later have to fight to get back.

But considering banks’ growing dislike of debit cards — which allow you to take money out of their vaults very easily but are now bringing in significantly fewer merchant fees to the banks — it’s unlikely that financial institutions will do much lobbying to improve these laws so that customers will enjoy the same protections as the credit cards that make huge profits for them.