What is a chargeback?

A stressed woman with a hand in her hair holding a credit card sits at a computer in home officeImage: A stressed woman with a hand in her hair holding a credit card sits at a computer in home office

In a Nutshell

Ever had a charge on your credit card or bank account that you didn’t authorize? How about an item that you purchased but was never delivered to you? As a consumer, you have the right to dispute a charge and begin the process known as a chargeback.
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A chargeback is a dispute of a purchase that has already been charged to an account that can result in a return of funds.

You may be thinking this is the same as a refund, but there’s a difference. A refund is paid directly from the merchant — but a chargeback, also known as a payment dispute, is handled and processed by your credit card issuer or bank.

If you have a credit card, then you may have had an erroneous charge on your account that you needed to dispute at some point. When consumers report charge disputes to their credit card issuer, the process of a chargeback begins.

As a consumer, you’re protected under the Fair Credit Billing Act, which gives you the right to dispute certain charges. Be mindful that certain requirements must be met, such as reporting the charge within 60 days of when the charge appeared on your billing statement.

Let’s break this whole chargeback term down.

What is a chargeback?

Chargebacks are focused on charges that have already been posted to an account, whether to a credit card account, where the consumer is expected to pay the outstanding balance by the due date, or a debit account, where the consumer has already had the money deducted from a bank account.

The process of a chargeback can be complex and can involve multiple participants. But from the consumer’s standpoint, let’s focus on three of the main players in the chargeback process: you, the credit card issuer or bank, and the merchant that received the payment.


How long can the chargeback process take?

It depends on the complexity of the chargeback request and the issuer. The process of investigating a claim typically takes between four weeks and 90 days. However, you may have to wait months to see money back.

The cardholder

Consumers should take a look at their credit card and bank statements regularly to make sure that the charges are correct. If charges appear that you think are wrong and need to dispute, you can start by contacting the merchant and asking for a credit card refund. If the charge in question is not resolved by a refund from the merchant, consumers can report the charge to their bank or credit card issuer, initiating a chargeback.

The credit card issuer or bank

Once a consumer has disputed a charge with the credit card issuer or bank, the chargeback process has begun. The issuer or bank generally requires a written statement with the details of the charge and a detailed reason for the chargeback request. After, the issuer or bank will conduct its own investigation to determine whether the charge is correct.

The merchant (and its bank)

The merchant should be notified of the chargeback claim and given the opportunity to provide a response. If the merchant doesn’t respond, the chargeback is typically granted and the merchant assumes the monetary loss.

If the merchant does provide a response and has compelling evidence showing that the charge is valid, then the claim is back in the hands of the consumer’s credit card issuer or bank. The credit card issuer or bank may compare your initial claim to the merchant’s response, and the issuer or bank decides.

Why you might decide to use the chargeback process

Charges can be disputed for a variety of reasons. Here is a list of some common disputable charges.

  • Unauthorized or fraudulent charges
  • You received a damaged or defective item
  • An item that you ordered was never delivered
  • Charges were duplicated or an incorrect amount was charged by the merchant

As mentioned previously, the chargeback process can be lengthy. If the dispute is ruled in the consumer’s favor, it could cost the merchant money. Some payment processors will charge a merchant for chargebacks to cover administrative costs.

Keep in mind that a merchant probably wants to avoid the hassle of dealing with a chargeback. The old saying “The customer is always right” still has clout. Merchants most likely want your business and will do what they can to keep their customers happy. If keeping a customer happy means issuing a refund, a merchant might do it rather than spend time and money on the chargeback process and risk losing a customer.

Chargeback fraud

Despite the idea that chargebacks are in place to protect consumers from erroneous charges and untrustworthy merchants, dishonest consumers sometimes turn the tables and make false chargeback claims. This is known as “friendly fraud.”

Friendly fraud can occur when consumers contact their credit card issuer or bank directly for a chargeback rather than first asking the merchant for a refund.

The consumer may do this for different reasons, like intending to get the purchase for free, buyer’s remorse, an expired refund policy, the purchased item was no longer needed, they don’t recognize the merchant name on their credit card or bank statement, or even because they forgot they actually made the purchase.

These so-called “friendly fraud” claims may not all be made maliciously or with criminal intent, but rather because the consumer may think this is the only recourse available to get a refund and is simply unaware of other options.

Credit card fraud is illegal. Make sure you only dispute erroneous charges on your credit card and bank statements.

Bottom line

As a consumer, chargebacks are a valuable resource when it comes to erroneous or disputable charges on your credit card or bank statement. Be a responsible and honest consumer and search your statements with a fine-tooth comb. If you come across a charge you need to dispute, simply contact the merchant to see if you can get a refund. If the merchant refuses, you can contact your credit card issuer or bank, and ask about your options.

Although many of us have suffered from buyer’s remorse or splurged on a shopping spree we knew we shouldn’t have, this is not a reason to request a chargeback. But if a charge appears on your credit card or bank statement that you think is wrong, you can dispute the charge and begin the chargeback process.

About the author: Sarah Schaut is a Canadian living in sunny Florida. She’s an economic crimes detective at a city police department and an expert in credit, fraud and mortgages. Read more.