Credit Cards

Your Secret Credit Weapon: The Chargeback

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Credit cards provide great protection against fraudulent charges, and some can even bag you great cash-back rewards. But perhaps the best thing about paying for your purchases with a credit card is that in the event of a dispute with a merchant, it provides the ultimate ace up your sleeve: the chargeback.

If you didn’t receive the goods you ordered or you feel otherwise wronged by the transaction, a chargeback gives you a refund when the retailer won’t. The issuer will investigate your claim against the merchant and, if it finds it meritorious, will remove the funds from the merchant’s account and put it in yours. Think of your issuer as your tough older brother, setting things right against the bully that’s been stealing your lunch money.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you can (or should) go disputing charge in pursuit of a chargeback anytime a retailer does you wrong. If a product proves defective or never arrives on your doorstep, your first stop should be traditional channels – that is, the retailer’s customer service desk or phone number. It’s only when the merchant doesn’t make with the refund that you should bring in the big guns and call up the issuing bank. (Your issuer should have clear instructions for formally disputing a charge, with options including a phone call, written letter or online form.)

And before you do so, note that not every situation qualifies for a chargeback. The Fair Credit Billing Act, the federal law that dictates how credit card fraud and billing disputes are handled, defines a number of situations as billing errors, including “goods or services not accepted by the obligor or his designee or not delivered to the obligor or his designee in accordance with the agreement made at the time of a transaction.” In other words, if you order a product and it never arrives – or if you refuse delivery because it’s not the product you expected or because it’s damaged – you’re entitled to your money back.

By contrast, simply disliking the product you received isn’t grounds for a chargeback – as the National Consumer Law Center notes in its guide to credit card rights, “You cannot raise a complaint about the quality of merchandise or services you bought with a credit card in the form of a billing dispute.” While being disappointed with the quality of your new toy will usually be covered under the retailer’s return policy, it’s not grounds for getting your bank involved.

So long as the issuer is in compliance with federal law, it’s free to set its own procedures for how to handle these disputes. Take, for instance, the timeframe in which cardholders must contact their issuers, which is set by the FCBA at a minimum of 60 days. A spokesperson for MasterCard says that the issuing financial institutions in its network have discretion to offer a longer timeframe as they see fit, and that most of them offer a 120-day window to dispute a charge. The spokesperson also says that the bank can ask for documentation to support the cardholder’s claim, including “sales slips, contracts, invoices and other types of documentation that will help the issuer fully inform the merchant about the nature of the dispute in non-fraud disputes.” So don’t dispute a charge unless you have some evidence to back up your claim.

Finally, it’s worth noting that banks may go above and beyond the general dispute resolution guidelines set by the issuing network. A spokesman for Chase, for instance, explains that “in cases where Chase is not able to process a chargeback from a merchant, we may, on occasion, provide a courtesy credit to our customers,” at a loss for the bank.

All of this makes chargebacks a potent tool in the consumer’s arsenal, to the point that the mere threat of going to your bank and requesting a chargeback may be enough to resolve the dispute in your favor. But if the retailer still doesn’t blink, don’t hesitate to follow through and take advantage of this key consumer protection.

Image: g4ll4is, via Flickr

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  • Gerri Detweiler

    Matt –

    Great piece and good advice for consumers. I would add a couple of thoughts from my experiences helping consumers.

    1. If the dollar amount is at all significant, but your dispute in writing and send it certified mail, return receipt requested. Keep a copy for your records.

    2. While some issuers may give you longer to dispute a charge, the 60-day window is what is offered under federal law, so if there’s a problem make sure you file your dispute promptly. I say that because there are less-than-reputable companies that will sometimes drag their feet on returns or credits in order to allow those 60 days to pass by.

    3. I wouldn’t hold off on filing a dispute just because I didn’t have the documentation. Depending on what the situation is (goods never received, for example) it may be the merchant who has to prove their case – not you.

    Again, great piece and I hope consumers use it to help protect themselves.

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  • Gerri Detweiler

    I am sorry but I am lost – I am not following the explanation. Is the problem that you never got the goods but they reversed the charge??

  • Credit Experts

    MissMandi —
    Sadly, such protections generally do not apply to debit cards. See Credit Cards Vs. Debit Cards: What’s Safer?

  • Gerri Detweiler

    Thanks for your perspective. We wrote about that problem in this story: Can You Shoplift Online?

  • Pogo74

    Visa dispute experts – In Jan 2015 I was scammed by a jeweler in Jerusalem who misreprented the quality and value of a pair of earrings and I bought it hook, line, and sinker with my Chase Visa. Upon return to the states I had a local jeweler confirm my suspicions that I was scammed and initiated a charge dispute with Chase. I had no expectations that this would be approved, but I figured it was worth a shot. A month later I check my account activity and see that they applied an adjustment to reverse the charge 2 days ago. Chase never even asked me for supporting documentaion. The online dispute record does not indicate dispute status and I received no correspondance from Chase, but it still gives me the option to cancel the dispute. My question is, does the adjustment mean the dispute is permanently resolved in my favor or could it be a temporary adjustment while the dispute is still pending? The obvious answer is to call Chase and find out, but my instinct is to let the sleeping dog lie. Thoughts?

    • Credit Experts

      Some card issuers issue a temporary refund while they investigate the consumer’s claims. It would be smart to keep your supporting documentation. You may be asked for it at some point.

  • Credit Experts

    Check your email. We have some questions.

  • Kathy

    I ordered something from Best Buy on 12/8/14 (for Christmas). Item was never received. The tracking information from the Post Office shows it went to the post office, but never went out for delivery. I called Best Buy and was told I could not cancel the item because it was shipped. Told them it was never received and she pulled it up and said yes, it was sent to post office but shows it never went out for delivery. She transferred me to “the back office” and I was disconnected. Tried again; same thing; disconnected. I sent an email stating I never received item and I want a refund (on 12/24/14). Never got a refund. Opened a dispute with my credit card, amount refunded to my card in January. In March, I receive a collection notice for the amount. . . . I have all documentation and am going after them!!!

  • R Reed

    Jan 2015 Citibank charged over $5000 to a local merchant. The merchant didn’t use my name, number, security code or zip code. I called Citibank as soon as I saw the statement and was told they were closing my card, filing a fraud investigation and issuing a new card. I contacted the merchant, who was extremely confused, for the reasons stated above. Fast forward to April 2015 when Citibank STILL won’t remove the charges, and won’t tell me why. Every time I talk to them, it’s “2 to 3 business days”… the merchant has attempted several times to run it thru as a credit to be posted, but Citibank doesn’t accept it. I am at my wits’ end.

    • Gerri Detweiler

      The Fair Credit Billing Act is very specific on deadlines for resolving investigations when you allege a billing error. Ideally you should put your dispute in writing (that ensures you are protecting your rights under that law. If you haven’t done so, we recommend you send them a letter by certified mail asap to the address listed on your statement for billing errors. You have 50 days from the date the statement containing the charge was mailed to you to assert a billing error, but there is no time limit for fraudulent charges so even if that time period has elapsed you may want to do so anyway. At the same time, it sounds like it would be a good idea to file a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. They may be able to help you get this resolved.

  • Jared Schuren

    I have a customer who rented our property during SXSW in Austin. They paid $2,500, on-line, via a credit card. The day of their arrival, they claimed the place smelled like smoke and requested a refund. I had several unbiased parties conclude that it did not smell and I refused the refund. They processed a charge-back thru their credit card company and the funds were automatically withdrawn from my account during the dispute process. I do not have a re-fund policy and they were made aware of that. Will I lose the case and never see those funds again? Any help or thoughts would be greatly appreciated. – Jared

    • Credit Experts

      We don’t know. You’ll know when you get the results of the dispute process.

    • forum11

      Jared, what was the outcome of the dispute process? Did the bank find in your favor or the renter’s? If the bank found in the renter’s favor, have you considered legal action through small claims court?

  • Lisa Brains

    I had a family member steal my debit card because their reasoning was the bank would reimburse me for the fraud because that is what their bank did. Problem was this douche changed my pin so it looked like I gave it to him. I found out it was him because after the bank refused my claim he said they were wrong because it happened to him, he finally admitted to doing it after his girlfriend got mad an told me he did it. $200 lost but a better lesson learned.

    • Gerri Detweiler


  • gonzocpfd

    I had a company recently call me about a purchase I made over a year ago. I have a copy of the receipt with a credit card authorization #. Apperently they never received funds. They are asking for a copy of my bank statement showing that funds were taken out of my account. I do not want to share such information. Do I legally have any obligation? Thank you.

    • Gerri Detweiler

      I don’t know if you are legally required to show them that, but my concern is that if you don’t the bill may wind up in collections. Can you take the statement to your bank and ask them to verify for this company that the funds were withdrawn?

  • Gerri Detweiler

    I sent you an email.

  • Janice

    My husband and I researched drug rehabilitation programs for our son, and decided upon a 90-day luxury resort program, for $33,200.00, which offered 24/7 Professional, Medical Detoxification Specialists, at a state-of-the-art facility, and charged the fee to our credit cards. Three days later we found that our son was taken to an old run-down house, with broken windows, dirty, etc., and that he was being monitored only by chain-smoking ex-drug addicts and that the program was sponsored by The Church of Scientology. We were HORRIFIED both by the conditions, the lack of medical specialists and that it was The Church of Scientology! Panic strickened, we removed our son after 4 days, with the protection of two police officers. (He was in California and we live in Maryland) VISA denied our claim as “… a quality issue.” We believe that we had complied with the dispute guidelines and that CapitalOne Quicksilver VISA, did not want to get involved for the $16,500.00. Do you think that we have any recourse with VISA?

    • Gerri Detweiler

      Janice – This is a tough one no doubt. Visa doesn’t usually get involved in individual disputes–that’s the responsibility of the issuer.

      But you could complain to them about the fact that this merchant is able to accept credit cards when their services sound very questionable. (Gather as much information as you can–perhaps there are other complaints you can find.)

      As for your dispute, given the amount of money involved, I’d suggest you at least talk with a consumer law attorney.

  • MC

    I’m concerned about the 60-120 window to dispute a charge. This week I submitted in writing with evidence a dispute to Citicard for a refund related to cabinets I ordered and never received. The deposit ($8.7K) was made in 11/2014 and delivery time was supposed to be ~14 weeks. After 14 weeks we were calling and following up with the company and getting the run around. They had many excuses for the delays. We were then promised a delivery date verbally for first week of June, and it obviously didn’t happen. Now we are giving up on this company and want our money back. Will the fact it’s been over 6 months hurt us in getting a charge back? We submitted evidence of what was ordered, the payment made, and a log of the fact we’ve called 40 times since January.

    • Gerri Detweiler

      It’s worth a try. The 60 day time period is spelled out in federal law but your card issuer can attempt a good faith chargeback.

  • sherry

    Hi: I made a purchase at a store but did not receive the items the say day instead they were sending it to my house via Fed Ex with a required signature- The receipt did say no refunds only exchanges within 14 days. I contacted the store a few hours after I left and asked if they would cancel the order as I no longer needed the merchandise and refund my card as a one time courtesy. The manager said she would speak to her boss and call me the next day. Needless to say no one contacted me and the charge of $2400 is on my card. I placed a dispute on the charge. I later on received a package from FED EX from the store and I did not accept delivery from FED EX. A few days later they sent the box back and it was just left at my front door. Do I have any recourse here? The box is still sitting outside and I have not opened it.

    • Gerri Detweiler

      If I understand the situation, you bought something and agreed to a no refund policy at the time of purchase then changed your mind. If that’s correct, then unfortunately the chargeback is really not designed to cover buyer’s remorse. If, however, the items they sent you were materially different in some way from what you purchased in the store then you may have a valid dispute.

      By the same token the definition of a billing error does include: “(3) A reflection on a statement of goods or services not
      accepted by the obligor…” so you may have that in your favor. You’ll need to work with your card issuer to resolve it, and if they won’t help try the CFPB or your state attorney general’s office. Or a consumer law attorney.

  • terdsak Suphatharophatphong

    I did purchased the furnitures from Living spaces store and they were schedule to delivered on 06/14/15. The delivery guys left 3 items at my entry way and there are 3 more items to delivered in my place and assemply them. However, I requested them to have something to cover their shoes cuz my floor is carpet. They decide to leave without my signature which items were delivered. I called the customer service and they said 6 items were delivered to my house and they had charged me all at the day of the delivery. I decided to call AMEX to dispute the charges. Can you please advice if Living space need my signature for the proof of delivery for the right to charge me? I know that AMEX will ask for the proof from Living space but Is the signature for delivery is the first proof AMEX looking for?

    • Gerri Detweiler

      Amex is going to simply try to establish whether you have a valid dispute. If what you are saying is correct–that you ordered 6 pieces but only three were delivered–then it sounds like you have a valid dispute. Have you tried returning to the store to talk with a manager? It’s a good idea, when possible, to try to resolve the problem with the merchant.

      • terdsak Suphatharophatphong

        I did stop by at the store yesterday and asked to talk to the manager but they said they will call back but i still havnt heard. I cakled this morning and ask for the update. An agent told me that the driver already dropped them off at my place so im not sure what to do and I havnt received those items.

        • Gerri Detweiler

          I’d suggest contacting your local Better Business Bureau and your credit card company to request a chargeback.

  • BBH

    I have major issues with a national retail store. I took my lawn mower to them for a spring tune up and specifically requested the electric start to be fixed. We paid a total of $117 for the repairs. Because we had not plugged in the mower to charge the battery we had just used the pull start. When we finally charged the starter and tried to use it the starter did not work. We tried to take it back in so they could complete the repair that was paid for but not done. We had also asked for the blade to be replaced and realized with closer inspection this was also not done. The retailer has since discontinued the service due to growing quality issues with the contractor they were paying to do the work. They referred us to a local repair shop and said their corporate offices would cover the cost. Now that the mower is repaired they are refusing to either pay for the local repairs totalling $211 or to refund the original amount for services they did not provide. The local shop documented it was obvious the work was not originally done. We have attempted to escalate the issue with the retailer but with no results. Would this qualify for a dispute?

    • Gerri Detweiler

      It depends on how much time is elapsed since you made the purchase. You can generally file a dispute within 60 days of the date the original bill with the charge was mailed to you. There is another section of the law that gives you the right to file a dispute in the case of quality issues. Yours may qualify but if you’ve paid your bill in full since you received the bill with that charge on it, then you’re out of luck in terms of that section of the law.

      I’d say it’s worth a try though

  • Brittany

    I have a question, if you guys could please help me out:::: I went to buy a wedding dress, but was upset that they had none in my size. The ladies told me that they could order a dress in a size 10, and could bring it down it down to a size 6, which would just fit me. I explained that I had just gotten off medication that caused me to gain weight, and I was losing weight as my body was getting back to it’s normal size. I asked about their return policy and they told me that there were no returns normally, but to let them know if I lost weight bc the dress would not fit me. They told me that I had to pay for the dress then or it would sell out fast and I would have no options. I was upset, and crying, the worst experience….. Anyway, I was planning on leaving on leaving mid-august for my wedding and they told me that the dress wouldn’t be in until the beginning of august to see if it would fit and start alterations (they had it order it from the manufacturer. In the meantime, I have lost more weight and am still losing it, the dress is a size 10 and I am closer to a size 2-4. I called them today to let them know that the dress won’t fit, like they had told me, and asked to cancel my order (the dress wasn’t supposed to be in until august). I told them that I needed a lot of things altered and would do it through them and they could just refund me the difference. They refused and told me that I had to come get the dress, or not, but they would not refund me. They also said that the dress came in yesterday. The purchase was $1200, is there anything I can do to get a refund? I told them that I would pay any shipping costs, but they said that’s not an option.

  • Paige White

    Before you go off simply filing a dispute keep in mind we the consumers spend hours and hours writing these reports. I have spent a tremendous amount of time simply because the customer does want comply to our policies. We fully insure parts and educate our customers on activating the insurance by notating damage on the delivery receipt. We highly advise all our customer yet they don’t want to read or listen to us until its too late and it is damage! Then we the small family own business suffer the lost business because of you lazy customers that do not want to activate your fully insured products!!! I am so sick of you complainer and curse you all that read this page! This is so sick this is why small businesses can not survive because of you pathetic customers dont want to do your part!

    • JB

      Curse all that read this page? I know dealing with chargebacks sucks, but LOL.

  • Gerri Detweiler

    I am not an expert in fighting chargebacks from the merchant perspective unfortunately. I’d suggest you start with your representative at the organization that set you up with your merchant account. If they can’t help you then you may need to take the client to small claims court.

  • Steve

    It is not considered theft (it’s a civil matter), but you are entitled to contact Visa and request that the item be shipped back to you (at your cost). You generally have 60 days to make this request. If the buyer fails to send the item back, Visa may re-charge him. Your “no refund” policy doesn’t apply if the item is alleged to be not as described. Similarly, a car dealership may have a no refund policy, but if the transmission goes a week later, most states have a lemon law that entitles you to a refund.

  • casey cadwell

    I sold a dunk tank which is a carnival type throw the ball and dunk your boss piece of equipment to a party rental company. The buyer asked to see pictures of what he would receive. The pictures of the dunk tank were high resolution and of the exact dunk tank he was buying. In fact, my daughter and my back yard were in the pictures. My daughter was being dunked. It was in new condition and used once for a demonstration. He bought it with a significant discount. Once he received it, he used my pictures I sent him to market his new dunk tank on his website. He also quoted his customers that the dunk tanks was $295 per day to rent.

    Two months later he disputed the charge saying the dunk tank was not as described. However, he described the dunk tank to his customers using the pictures of the dunk tank with my daughter and back yard in his marketing materials.

    He received all his money back and never returned the dunk tank. I disputed his charge back yet lost the dispute. The invoice stated the return period is 7 days and that the buyer is responsible for freight both directions. I did not have his signature on the invoice but I did have email correspondence from him that showed he bought and received the dunk tank.

    I did a Googe search on this guy. He is mentioned numerous times in the for this exact type of scam with charge-backs. Unfortunately, the consumer (credit card) laws seems to allow him to get away with this scam. What can I do to recoup my $1500?

    • Gerri Detweiler

      Can you take him to small claims court?

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