Last updated in July 2016
The shoddy plumbing job. The car repair that didn’t actually repair anything. The brand-new sofa that sags. The bill from the rental car company to fix a door you didn’t ding. The missing shipment. The fraudsters. Even careful consumers sometimes run into problems.
In many Checkbook articles, we advise you to pay using a credit card. That’s because credit cards are more than just a convenient way to pay for stuff; when you use one, you automatically get incredibly strong protections against most lousy-service scenarios and companies that sell faulty goods.
The genesis of these protections is the federal Fair Credit Billing Act, a law that protects you from fraud by requiring credit card companies—not consumers—to deal with fraudulent charges. The law also provides important protections against billing errors.
What many consumers don’t know is that the law also requires your credit card company to give you the chance to dispute charges and withhold payment for goods and services that you didn’t accept or that weren’t delivered as promised. This means that if you used a credit card to pay for something that isn’t satisfactory, and you tried to work it out with a seller who won’t budge, you can tell the company that issued your credit card you want to contest the payment and get your money back. Ditto for defective or undelivered products.
When you request a “chargeback,” the seller gets the opportunity to protest it—possibly by claiming that you made no effort to resolve the matter, or refused to return the goods that you say are unsatisfactory, or that the goods are exactly what you ordered. But as a practical matter, sellers rarely succeed in reversing chargebacks. As long as you return the merchandise (or try to return it), or document the product or service defect (for example, by having a second auto repair shop correct a lousy repair and write up what they did), you’re likely to win the dispute and get your money back. Sometimes credit card companies simply eat disputed charges to satisfy their customers, rather than launch an investigation.
When we asked Checkbook members to share their credit card chargeback stories, we received more than 100 emails, almost all of them success stories. Billing mistakes and cases of theft and fraud, in particular, were handled promptly—no surprise since laws clearly protect consumers from these types of problems. For disputed transactions related to lousy service or defective merchandise, credit card companies usually removed the charges quickly, with few or no questions asked. Sometimes credit card companies investigated, which took a month or two and some back-and-forth between customers and sellers, but customers almost always won.
A handful of members did share negative experiences, and in some cases credit card issuers did side with the sellers, sometimes even when sellers clearly were in the wrong. In our experience, sellers more often win disputes when they ask customers to sign contracts during the purchase process that include clauses such as “buyer beware” or “all sales final.” But the overall feedback was remarkably positive.
Some success stories:
- An $850 charge for plumbing work was refunded when the customer complained that the work was unsatisfactory.
- A customer who bought a fully refundable airline ticket received a refund for the fare when he canceled the trip, but the airline refused to refund fees he paid for a seat upgrade. When asked to step in, the credit card company forced the airline to supply a full refund.
- A credit card company reversed the charges for $400 worth of crummy car repairs.
- A member who signed up for a 30-day diet program for $39 was charged more than $200 for a six-month subscription. Requests for a refund fell on deaf ears until she asked her credit card bank to step in.
- A furniture store went bankrupt shortly after accepting an order and payment of several thousand dollars. As the family had not yet taken delivery of any items, their credit card bank was able to reverse the charges with relative ease.
- An $1,800 charge for a stove that wasn’t delivered when promised was refunded.
Since credit card issuers strongly desire to keep their customers happy, the protections they provide are in practice even broader than your rights under the law. For example, while the law states that you have to contest a charge within 60 days of receiving a bill, most banks that work with Visa and MasterCard give their customers 120 days to contest it, and on a case-by-case basis usually allow even more time—especially if you can document that you could not have known about the problem any sooner. And while the law protects you only for purchases in your home state or within 100 miles of your current billing address, credit card companies usually let you contest any charge. American Express, in particular, is well known by retailers to have a very generous policy toward its card users.
Similarly, debit card purchases aren’t covered under the Fair Credit Billing Act. But when you pay with a debit card that uses the Visa or MasterCard payment system to complete a purchase, that purchase is governed by Visa and MasterCard’s consumer-friendly rules. Most debit card purchases are routed through Visa or MasterCard; if you’re asked when using a debit card to choose “debit” or “credit” at checkout, choosing “credit” pushes the transaction through the Visa or MasterCard system.
To contest a charge, ask the bank or company that issued your credit card for its chargeback procedures. Usually you can do it on its website—simply go to your list of purchases, select the transaction, and use a link to report a problem. Some banks still require customers to submit requests in writing and mail in documentation (this is most common with debit cards).
Even if you already paid your credit card bill in full, you can still contest the charge. During the time that the credit card company investigates, the questionable charge is removed from your outstanding balance and you are not required to pay it or the portion of your balance, or any interest, until the dispute is resolved. If the credit card company rules in your favor, it simply pulls the money back out of the seller’s account and credits yours.
Before disputing a charge, give the offending company a reasonable chance to make things right. Chargebacks are serious problems for businesses that get hit with them: They lose the disputed amounts plus pay fees of $25 to $100, depending on the credit card company. If they get too many chargebacks, they can lose their right to accept credit cards. The process is so consumer-friendly and powerful that often just threatening to make a chargeback request will get it to do the right thing.
But keep in mind that a chargeback on your credit card account doesn’t mean the seller has no rights against you. The seller can still try to get payment by suing you directly.