What Is a Chargeback? What Business Owners Need to Know

A chargeback is a reversal of funds after a customer has disputed a transaction with their credit card company.
Lisa Anthony
Randa Kriss
By Randa Kriss and  Lisa Anthony 
Edited by Sally Lauckner

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As a business owner, you want to avoid a dispute with a customer. When a customer files a dispute, or chargeback, with their credit card company instead of working with you to resolve the issue, it could cost you more than the money from the transaction.

To prevent your business from facing frequent chargebacks — and the fees associated with them — it’s important to understand how these disputes work and what you can do to rebut them.

Chargeback definition

A chargeback, also called a payment dispute, is a reversal of funds after a customer has issued a dispute on a credit or debit card transaction with their bank. The Fair Credit Billing Act of 1974 created chargebacks as a consumer-protection mechanism against fraudulent charges.

After a customer files a dispute with their credit card company, the chargeback process begins and the disputed transaction funds are held until the issue is resolved. If the decision favors the customer, they don’t have to pay the charge. However, if you win the decision, the disputed funds go to you.

How do chargebacks work?

The chargeback process can vary depending on whom you use for payment processing. However, here is what you can generally expect:

  • Purchase transaction is processed: A purchase is made from your business using a credit or debit card. The transaction is processed, and you receive the funds in your business account.

  • Customer disputes the charge: The customer sees the transaction and files a dispute with the bank that issued their card, also called the issuing bank.

  • Chargeback process begins: The issuing bank gives the cardholder a temporary credit for the transaction and then initiates the chargeback process by contacting your payment processor.

  • Funds deducted from merchant’s account: After your payment processor learns of the chargeback, you’ll be notified and the disputed funds will typically be removed from your business account until the dispute is resolved.

  • Merchant can rebut the chargeback: You're given the opportunity to provide documents to rebut the chargeback. If you don’t respond to the chargeback notification, the issuing bank will typically grant the dispute to the customer.

  • Issuing bank makes a decision: If you provide documents to rebut the chargeback, the issuing bank will evaluate the evidence and make a decision. If the bank rules in your favor, the customer has to pay and the disputed funds are sent back to you.

  • Possibility of arbitration: If you or the customer is unhappy with the decision, you can enter an arbitration process where the chargeback dispute is taken to the associated credit card network (Visa, MasterCard, American Express, etc.) for a final decision.

Chargeback vs. refund

At this point, you might be wondering, “Is a chargeback a refund?” In short, the answer is no — although chargebacks and refunds can involve the return of funds to a customer, there are important differences between the two.

  • Who initiates the process: A business owner initiates a refund to repay a customer who is returning a product or is dissatisfied with goods or services. However, a customer initiates a chargeback through the bank that issued their card.

  • Whom the customer deals with: The issuing bank facilitates the chargeback process on the customer’s behalf. With refunds, the customer works with the merchant to resolve the problem and collect their payment.

  • What happens to the funds: With a chargeback, the disputed funds are collected from your business account and held until a decision is made. With refunds, however, you initiate the process and ask your payment processor to return the appropriate funds to the customer.

  • How long the process takes: Because chargebacks involve numerous parties and there’s a potential for an arbitration process, they typically take longer to resolve than refunds where a customer can deal directly with the merchant.

Chargeback fees

In addition to losing the funds from a sale, a merchant may have to pay a chargeback fee, which is assessed by the payment processor to cover the administrative costs of resolving a chargeback. These fees range from about $15 to $50 per transaction, but they may reach up to $100 or more, depending on the payment processor. Larger chargeback fees are imposed on businesses that are considered high risk — because of their industry or their chargeback history.

Some payment processors don't have chargeback fees, and others will reimburse chargeback fees if the dispute is resolved in the merchant’s favor.

Additional consequences of chargebacks

Beyond funds being returned to customers and chargeback fees, there can be other consequences associated with chargebacks. The credit card networks set acceptable monthly levels of chargebacks for merchants. If a merchant exceeds these network thresholds, they could be placed in a monitoring program and face monthly fines and additional fees.

Also, if a merchant has a high number of chargebacks, they could potentially be classified as high risk and pay higher fees for payment processing or be required to keep a reserve of funds to cover chargebacks.

Reasons for chargebacks

It’s important to understand why customers initiate chargebacks — and what you can do to prevent and dispute them. Generally, chargebacks fall into two groups:

Valid use of the chargeback process

The chargeback process gives consumers a way to dispute transactions on their credit card statement by going through their bank instead of the merchant. In general, customers have 60 days from the time they receive their bill to notify their credit card company that they are disputing a transaction. Valid credit card disputes with merchants generally fall within three areas:

  • Unauthorized transactions: These are fraudulent charges that can be the result of the loss or theft of a cardholder’s physical card or the highjacking of their card information by another means.

  • Billing errors: These may include incorrect purchase dates and amounts, failure to give credit for returns, charges for goods the customer didn’t accept and charges for goods that weren’t delivered as agreed.

  • Unresolved customer complaints: If a customer is not satisfied with a merchant’s response when they have a concern about quality or another issue, they may dispute the charge.

Misuse of the chargeback process

There are situations where a customer may file a chargeback for reasons that aren’t technically legitimate. Invalid use of the chargeback process, whether by accident or on purpose, is commonly referred to as “friendly fraud.” Here are some examples of customer misuse of chargebacks:

  • Avoiding the return process: A customer may decide to use the chargeback process instead of the return process if they feel that the return process is too difficult, they don’t understand it or the time limit for the return has expired.

  • Not recognizing the transaction: A customer may forget they made the purchase or not recognize the business name on their statement and file a dispute as an honest mistake.

  • Claiming a legitimate purchase is fraud: Finally, there are times when a customer makes a legitimate purchase from a merchant and then disputes the charge as a means to avoid paying for it.

How to prevent chargebacks

There are tactics you can employ to decrease the number of chargebacks your business faces:

Follow credit card acceptance guidelines and best practices

You can minimize chargebacks by following credit card guidelines and remaining PCI-compliant. Here are some general practices that can help you reduce chargebacks:

  • Use a reliable point-of-sale, or POS, system and payment gateway.

  • Use POS hardware that is EMV compliant.

  • Don’t allow a chip card to be swiped to avoid being liable for a payment dispute.

  • Require a cardholder’s ID and signature for magnetic-strip-only cards.

  • Have the customer enter their PIN or sign a receipt for debit card transactions.

  • Require customers to provide the expiration date, type of card and CVV code for online or phone transactions.

  • Train your employees on the correct way to process credit cards.

  • Provide receipts to customers.

  • Use the fraud prevention tools and technology offered by your payment processor.

Develop clear, visible business policies and focus on customer service

One action you can take to prevent friendly fraud is to develop clear and visible business policies — especially those that relate to shipping and returns. Make it as easy as possible for customers to return merchandise and talk to you about any issues by doing the following:

  • Provide tracking information for all orders, and use a reliable shipping service that shows proof of delivery.

  • List your shipping timeline and policies on your website, and include them with order confirmations and receipts.

  • Display your return and refund policies clearly at your store and on your website.

  • Make your pricing clear and itemize everything on receipts so there’s no confusion.

  • If you have recurring payments set up for a subscription service, send a reminder of the charge to customers before processing the payment.

  • Ensure that your business name is recognizable on credit card statements.

  • Encourage customers to reach out to you by phone, email or live chat with issues — and respond to customer complaints promptly.

Vet your payment processor

You’ll work closely with your payment processor throughout the chargeback process to rebut illegitimate chargebacks that your business faces. To be confident in the services they provide, you’ll want to compare providers, carefully read the agreements they offer and talk to them about how they handle chargebacks, what their fees look like and what tools they have available to prevent legitimate and friendly fraud.

How to dispute chargebacks

No matter how proactive you are, it’s likely that your business will face chargebacks at some point, so it’s important to understand what to do when this occurs.

If your business is notified of a chargeback, you’ll want to determine whether the claim is legitimate. If, based on your investigation and records, the charge looks like a valid use of the chargeback process, you’ll want to relay that to your payment processor. It will work with the issuing bank to return the funds to the cardholder. Hopefully, your payment processor will work with you to investigate further and also suggest actions you can take to avoid similar incidents of card fraud.

If you think a chargeback is not legitimate, you’ll want to dispute it as soon as possible because you may have only a few days to respond. Work with your payment processor to offer evidence such as invoices, receipts, shipping details and other records to the issuing bank to use in its decision-making. If you resolve the issue with your customer during the dispute process, they can contact their bank to cancel the chargeback.

Here are a few important tips:

  • Stay organized. Ensure that you keep thorough and organized transaction records; these can be essential to providing evidence to fight chargebacks.

  • Communicate with your payment provider. Understand your provider’s process regarding chargebacks and respond to them promptly when you receive notification of a disputed transaction.

  • Dispute cases of friendly fraud. Don’t be afraid to fight against chargebacks that you believe are illegitimate. Not refuting them could hurt your bottom line: Merchants have reported that friendly fraud was responsible for an estimated 42% of their chargebacks, according to the 2022 Chargeback Field Report by Chargebacks911.

A version of this article was first published on Fundera, a subsidiary of NerdWallet.

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