Depending on your point of view, chargebacks are either a consumer-friendly feature or a drain on profits. For buyers, they offer peace of mind and recourse against potential fraud and disputes with vendors. For sellers, chargebacks create a source of angst, a tarnished reputation among credit card processing companies, and a way to lose revenue.
Defining a Chargeback
A chargeback is a reversal of charges after purchase. A payment gets returned to a buyer from the seller’s account. Chargebacks are probably most popular for credit card purchases, but they are increasingly used for other types of payment, including:
- Debit card purchases
- Payments made through payment services (PayPal, Square, and others)
- Electronic bank drafts
Chargebacks offer consumer protection. Buyers are promised they will not be responsible if their accounts have fraudulent activity, and they might even be able to reverse charges when they are dissatisfied with a product or service.
Chargebacks should only be used as a last resort. Banks and payment services encourage consumers to contact merchants—whether that’s a retailer selling goods, an online business, or a service provider—to try and resolve errors and disputes without a chargeback.
If no agreement is reached, consumers can make use of buyer protection or similar programs, which hold more power over merchants.
If you run a business, excessive chargebacks can create some real problems:
The main problem is that you don’t get paid when a chargeback hits your merchant account. You have likely paid fees to process the credit card sale, but end up with zero revenue from the transaction in question. You might have provided goods or services, so you lose inventory or valuable time.
Chargebacks happen to everybody, but you don’t want to develop a bad reputation. If your business experiences too many chargebacks, payment networks may wonder if your business is somehow taking advantage of customers or doing something fraudulent. Your merchant account might be closed, or you might have to deal with higher reserves and longer hold times on your funds.
You likely have to pay penalties when chargebacks hit your merchant account. That's in addition to any cost of inventory or time spent on the transaction in question. You’re also out any additional costs associated with fulfilling the order, such as shipping charges.
The Ability to Reverse Charges
Why are consumers able to reverse charges? The ability to do so comes from several sources and depends on the situation, the type of payment used, and the reason for the chargeback request. With credit cards, chargebacks are authorized by the Truth in Lending Act or credit card processing agreements.
With debit cards, chargebacks are allowed under the Electronic Funds Transfer Act. However, with both credit and debit cards, payment processors might have additional rules that allow for chargebacks, and those rules tend to provide more protection for consumers than federal law does. Visa and Mastercard branded debit cards, among others, offer “zero liability” policies, for example. Federal law limits consumer loss to $50 if fraud is reported within 60 days.
When it comes to payment services like PayPal, Google Wallet, and others, chargebacks get more complicated. Those services might offer their own form of “buyer protection” similar to the credit card processing networks because otherwise, buyers might be reluctant to use these services.
Payments through these services are generally funded by credit cards, debit cards, and bank accounts, so consumers can potentially request a chargeback with their bank or the payment service. A customer does not initiate a chargeback with the actual merchant.
Credit card networks and payment services seem to be the most sympathetic to consumers. Common reasons for chargebacks include:
- The customer was charged more than once.
- The customer doesn’t recognize the charges.
- The goods delivered were not the goods ordered.
- The charge is legitimate, but the goods never arrived.
- A refund was not processed by the merchant.
- The quality of goods is not satisfactory.
The Chargeback Process
The chargeback process starts with a consumer complaint. Consumers notify their bank that there is a problem with a transaction in their account. For simplicity, “bank” might mean the consumer’s bank, the card-issuing bank or card network, or a payment service provider.
For most disputes, the consumer provides a written description of what happened and any proof available. Depending on the circumstances, funds might be frozen in the merchant’s account or credited to the customer account.
Banks then investigate, contacting any intermediaries involved with the transaction, and requesting information from the merchant that made the charge. The merchant has the opportunity to provide proof that the charge is valid and that the merchant met their end of the bargain, if applicable, and the bank decides who will prevail.
An Ounce of Prevention
The best way to deal with chargebacks is to prevent them in the first place. In this case, businesses seem to be “guilty until proven innocent,” and that’s not a position you want to be in. How can you avoid trouble?
Customers don’t like unpleasant surprises, so be upfront about anything that might result in an unhappy customer. Clearly and honestly describe your product or service, and include detailed pictures.
If something goes wrong, such as a delay in shipping, for example, inform your customer as soon as possible. If customers call or write with questions or complaints, respond promptly. Customers use chargebacks when they feel powerless, so don’t let them feel that way.
Keep Good Records
If an unjustified chargeback hits your account, make sure you can get the case closed quickly. Keep any proof of fulfilled orders including receipts, invoices, shipping documents and confirmations, signatures, and server logs. Sometimes, customers forget that they ordered from you, and showing them proof clears things up quickly.
Choose Wisely How Your Name Is Displayed
When consumers see transactions in their account history, can they recognize your business? Make sure the name that appears on bank statements matches who the consumer thinks they bought from. If you sell coffee mugs, a good name might be “Acme Coffee Mugs,” but “Acme Enterprises” could result in more chargebacks. Include your phone number as well, if possible.
You might think any sale is a good sale, but that’s only true if it’s a legitimate sale.
Don’t make it too easy for thieves to shop your store. For credit card orders, require security codes and address verification.
If orders seem suspicious, take an extra moment to review the transaction and contact the buyer. For example, if you get a new customer from overseas who suddenly places a large rush order, use caution before shipping goods. Additionally, if somebody wants goods shipped to an address that doesn’t match the credit card billing address, be careful and investigate further.
Unfortunately, you’re not just dealing with thieves using stolen credit cards.
Another type of chargeback, known as "friendly fraud," happens when somebody makes a legitimate purchase and reverses the charges after receiving goods. They may do this simply because they know they can get away with it.
To prevent friendly fraud, the best things you can do are keep good records so that you’ll hopefully have sufficient proof to fight the chargeback. Again, use any security tools available in your merchant account to gather as much detail on your buyers as possible.