This is an excerpt from Dollar Scholar, the Money newsletter where news editor Julia Glum teaches you the modern money lessons you NEED to know. Don't miss the next issue! Sign up at money.com/subscribe and join our community of 160,000+ Scholars.
I was scrolling aimlessly through Instagram recently when my eyes landed on an ad for an item I immediately knew I had to have: a white T-shirt, covered in cartoon frogs.
“Damn, I Love Frogs,” the shirt proclaimed in black block letters, and damn, I do, so I bought it. On my phone, I clicked through to the website and put in my credit card information. A few days later, the shirt arrived, in all its amphibian glory, in my Brooklyn mailbox.
I love it — and the stares I get from passers-by when I wear it outside — but I admit the retailer I purchased the shirt from is super sketchy. However, I felt secure in making the order because I knew the credit card I used to pay for it would protect me from losing all my money to a frog-obsessed scammer.
But, just to ease my mind, I decided to research credit card disputes. Allow me to impart my newly acquired wisdom...
When should I file a credit card dispute?
Let’s start with a definition. Credit card disputes are exactly what they sound like: instances in which someone disputes a charge made on their credit card. Usually, this is either because they didn’t authorize the charge or they never got the goods or services promised, says Madison Block, senior marketing communications associate at the nonprofit agency American Consumer Credit Counseling.
Disputes basically amount to “putting in writing” that there’s been a mistake and it “needs to be overturned,” she adds.
The first type of dispute — fraud — is relatively cut-and-dried. Imagine I get a notification from my banking app that there’s some suspicious activity on my account, or I find charges on my credit card statement I don’t recognize. I don’t need to panic; I’m protected under the Fair Credit Billing Act, a law that took effect in 1974.
The act spells out that I’m generally allowed to dispute charges over $50 within 60 days of getting the bill. In addition to unauthorized charges, billing errors can also include charges in the wrong amount and charges on the wrong date. (The law caps my liability for unauthorized charges at $50, though most credit cards offer $0 fraud liability, meaning I'm not responsible for any unauthorized charges.)
If I suspect there’s fraud happening, I should send a letter explaining the situation to my credit card issuer. They’ll forward my concerns along to the vendor, which then has 30 days to acknowledge my complaint and look into it.
Block recommends I also freeze my account, file a police report and contact the credit bureaus so they can put a fraud alert on my credit report, for good measure.
The other main type of dispute is a bit more subjective — and a bit more applicable to my life.
Chaim Geller, the founder and CEO of helpmebuildcredit.com, says that I can file a dispute if I feel that I didn't get the good or service promised.
For example, if I hired a carpet cleaner and I still find stains on my carpet once he leaves, I can dispute. If I cancel my Netflix subscription in April but still get charged in June, I can dispute. If I order a large red shirt and I get a small blue one, I can dispute.
This is an especially important failsafe in the era of internet shopping, where “anybody can buy a GoDaddy domain,” Geller says.
He adds: “Shopping with a credit card gives you that confidence that if anything goes wrong, if you’re not happy with the purchase, if there’s fraud, if they overcharged you … you can get your money back.”
I’ll need to give my creditor details, like the date of incident and “what your side of the story is,” he says. I may also be asked to provide documentation (like an email confirming that my Netflix subscription was canceled). Like with the fraud cases, the creditor will then forward the dispute to the merchant, which will investigate and respond. During the dispute process, I’m not liable for the charge.
If the merchant can come up with its own proof that it did deliver the good/service — like, say, a tracking number proving my large red shirt did indeed arrive at my address — then the case will likely be closed and I won’t get my money back. If it can’t, or it doesn’t respond in a timely manner, the case will likely be closed and I’ll get my money back.
Businesses generally want to minimize the amount of these disputes, also called chargebacks. They cost money and time to resolve. Merchants also may incur fees or see their reputations slide (both with customers and service providers) as a result of too many chargebacks.
Geller points out that, from a consumer perspective, people can be scared to dispute charges because they think the credit card company will close their account. But this is against the law. Even multiple disputes — within reason, that is — are fine.
“In normal circumstances, if you find an illegitimate charge, dispute it. The worst thing that can happen is you can lose the dispute,” he adds.
However, Ginger Stands, a card operations specialist with iQ Credit Union, warns against going willy-nilly with disputes.
“If, every six months, you’re claiming Comcast hasn’t given you a refund, they’re going to ask: Why are you continuously filing against Comcast? Is Comcast being difficult, or do you just not want to deal with it?” she says.
The bottom line
Disputing credit card charges can be a good way to protect myself in the event of fraud or if a merchant doesn’t provide what I ordered. But it’s definitely intended more for cases in which I straight-up don’t receive an item or get the wrong item — not for cases in which I’m not satisfied with an item.
In addition, Stands says I should always try directly resolving my issue with the business (aka contacting customer service) before going the dispute route.
“You want to use a dispute with your bank as a last-ditch effort to get your money back,” she adds.