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Consumers Union asks talk show to cut debit-card giveaway

Citing the risk of fraud, Consumers Union on Monday asked TV talk show hosts Regis Philbin and Kathie Lee Gifford to reconsider their new promotion giving away a $5,000 MasterCard debit card.

The nationally syndicated show "Live with Regis and Kathie Lee" has been running a contest for several days in which the prize for identifying the title of a song is the debit card.Unlike automated teller machine cards, the increasingly popular debit cards don't require use of a personal identification number unless they're being used in ATMs. Only the consumer's signature is needed for a purchase, so that a checking account could be drained quickly if a card is stolen.

Several federal lawmakers - including Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, R-N.Y., chairman of the Senate Banking Committee - have proposed measures that would cap consumers' liability for lost or stolen debit cards at $50, which is the ceiling for credit cards.

"We are writing to ask you to reconsider your show's participation in this promotion, because we don't think you may be aware of some of the dangerous problems these unsecured debit cards are causing for consumers," Gene Kimmelman, co-director of Consumers Union's Washington office, said in a letter to Philbin and Gifford. Consumers Union is the publisher of Consumer Reports magazine.

"Putting a new product on your show has the effect of giving the Regis and Kathie Lee stamp of approval," Kimmelman wrote. He said it was his understanding that the debit card featured in the giveaway can be used either with or without a personal identification number.

Hope Hartman, a spokeswoman for the show, had no immediate comment on the consumer group's request.

Doug Rozman, a spokesman for MasterCard International at its headquarters in Purchase, N.Y., said debit cards are a "secure and reliable" method of payment, with fraud occurring in only 0.2 percent of all transactions. He declined to comment directly on Consumers Union's letter.