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Most consumers wouldn’t dream of slipping a piece of jewelry in their purse and walking out without paying for it. They’d never eat a candy bar while shopping then conveniently “forget” about it. But there is another type of shoplifting that doesn’t require a consumer to set foot in a store, and as a result consumers may not realize it’s a problem.

It’s known as “online shoplifting,” and the mechanism that makes these heists possible is something called a chargeback.

It works like this: A consumer buys an item online and if there is any kind of problem – including buyer’s remorse – the consumer simply logs onto his or her credit card account and files a dispute. Card issuers are responsive to their customer’s disputes, and that means that sometimes the charge is reversed even if there wasn’t a legitimate dispute to begin with, or even though the merchandise was never returned.

As a result, the consumer keeps the merchandise and the merchant eats the loss, the same as they would if a customer walked out of the store with the item.

The right to dispute certain credit card transactions is part of federal law, and was designed to add a layer of protection for consumers when merchandise purchased with a credit card is not delivered as agreed, or if there is a mistake on the bill. That law, known as the Fair Credit Billing Act, was enacted long before online shopping and online cardholder access were even imagined.

It is now so easy now for consumers to file a dispute with their credit card online that many consumers don’t even bother to contact the merchant if there is a problem with something they have purchased says Monica Eaton-Cardone, COO of Chargebacks 911, a risk mitigation company. “We’ve found that 58% of cardholders never contact the merchant before filing a transaction dispute, and another 28% only contact the merchant after the dispute had already been filed,” she says. “Consumers who have a legitimate concern about their purchase should first give the merchant an opportunity to make things right before resorting to a chargeback.”

To be clear: Chargebacks themselves are not fraudulent, but when consumers abuse this tool meant for consumer protection, it raises alarms with both retailers and credit card issuers. On top of the lost merchandise, it typically costs about $40 to process a chargeback request, says Eaton-Cardone.

It may also have unintended consequences for consumers, she says. Consumers who file disputes too frequently may be flagged and face greater scrutiny in the future. And some merchants may turn over balances owed for unreturned merchandise obtained fraudulently to collection agencies, which can drop your credit scores significantly. (You can keep an eye on your credit scores for free every month on Credit.com.)

This should not dissuade consumers with legitimate disputes involving credit card purchases they can’t resolve with the merchant from enlisting their credit card issuer’s help. But before you do that, says Eaton-Cardone, do the same thing you would if you needed to return something you bought in person at the store: Talk to the merchant.

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