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When Credit Card Disputes Become ‘Friendly Fraud’

Credit Card Basics, Credit Cards
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credit card chargebacks

It’s a cardinal rule of shopping: If you don’t like what you purchased, you should get your money back.

Often, it’s quite easy. Generous refund policies abound. “The customer is always right” is a popular mantra.

And if a merchant is unwilling to resolve your problem, you have another option: asking your credit card company to reverse your payment, known as a chargeback. The federal Fair Credit Billing Act gives you the right to dispute a charge under certain circumstances, and many issuers make the process much easier than the law requires.

But just as you shouldn’t abuse a generous return policy, you shouldn’t dispute credit card purchases without a legally valid reason. Often referred to as “friendly fraud,” illegitimate chargebacks — including honest mistakes — cost U.S. merchants plenty. Merchants with in-store sales attributed 31% of their fraud losses in the previous year to friendly fraud, according to a 2016 LexisNexis report.

Before telling your credit card company, “I’m not paying for that,” save your merchant and yourself some trouble: Make sure you have a rock-solid reason for seeking a chargeback.

What you can dispute

You can dispute credit card charges with your issuer for three reasons under the Fair Credit Billing Act:

  • Someone else used your card without permission. Say a fraudster charged a big-screen TV to your card. You could dispute that payment as an unauthorized purchase.
  • There was a billing error. Say the merchant charged you for two TVs, but you bought only one. You could also dispute that charge.
  • You’ve made a good-faith effort to resolve a problem with the merchant. Suppose you bought a TV and discovered that the screen was cracked. If the merchant refused to give you a refund, you’d generally be able to dispute that purchase successfully, if the purchase met certain requirements under the law.

Filing a dispute is simple. Often, you just need to click the “dispute” button on your issuer’s online portal or app and answer a few questions. The purchase is credited back to you immediately. But “simple,” of course, doesn’t mean “inconsequential.”

What you shouldn’t dispute

For merchants, losses from legitimate chargebacks are a cost of doing business, says Monica Eaton-Cardone, chief operating officer of Chargebacks911, a firm that works with merchants to limit chargebacks. But she views friendly fraud as “essentially cyber shoplifting.”

“The majority of consumers are honest, and they want to do the right thing,” Eaton-Cardone says. “If they know what happens with a chargeback, and they actually see how [an illegitimate claim] is stealing money from the merchant, they won’t do it.”

In addition to the lost revenue from the sale, Eaton-Cardone says merchants are charged a fee, which averages $25 to $30, for each claim. Merchants can dispute a chargeback, but they might not prevail, especially if they can’t prove the charge was valid.

It’s easy to think your dispute is legally valid when it isn’t. Here are a few examples of illegitimate chargebacks that might surprise you:

The “unauthorized purchase” was made by a friend or family member.  Check with authorized users to see if they made a purchase you were unaware of. A good rule of thumb: If you’re not willing to file a police report on your child or partner for making an online purchase without your permission, don’t file a chargeback for it.

You’re dissatisfied with a purchase but haven’t talked to the merchant yet. “I would urge consumers to take five minutes of their time, reach out and give the merchant the opportunity to resolve the transaction,” Eaton-Cardone says. If you don’t, a merchant could successfully dispute your chargeback.

To be sure, the term “friendly fraud” is often a misnomer — at least when referring to accidental chargebacks.

“‘Fraud’ usually implies some sort of intent,” says Chi Chi Wu, staff attorney for the National Consumer Law Center. If you’re unhappy with a purchase, filing a chargeback right away, without first trying to resolve the issue with the merchant, is at most “a failure to comply with the procedural requirements of the chargeback right,” she adds.

Filing a chargeback when you shouldn’t can trigger unintended consequences. You’ll almost certainly give up your chance of getting a refund. Some businesses also blacklist customers who initiate illegitimate chargebacks. And if your credit card issuer believes you’re violating your card agreement repeatedly, it may close your account.

Dispute responsibly

Before disputing a charge, here’s how you can prepare:

Know why you’re disputing the charge. If you believe someone’s making fraudulent purchases on your card, alert your issuer as soon as possible and request a new card and account number.

Gather evidence. Keep receipts, photos and correspondence with the merchant that support your claims, in case your issuer requires you to provide them.

Talk to the merchant. You don’t need to talk to the issuer before disputing a payment in cases of fraud or billing errors. But if you’re simply dissatisfied with a purchase, the law requires you to make a good-faith effort to resolve the issue with the merchant first. Calling customer service first, rather than hitting the “dispute” button, could get you your money back while keeping you on good terms with your retailer.

Claire Tsosie is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: claire@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @ideclaire7.

 This article was written by NerdWallet and was originally published by Forbes.