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Updated Nov 02, 2023

What Are Chargebacks, and How Can You Avoid Them?

Chargebacks present financial and reputational challenges for businesses. Learn how to prevent them.

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Skye Schooley, Senior Lead Analyst & Expert on Business Operations
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Navigating business finances can be a challenge. Companies must strive to give consumers the products and services they want while maintaining a profit. E-commerce giants like Amazon and Walmart have paved the way for perks like free shipping and returns, which means consumers now expect these extras from all retailers. 

As consumer expectations grow and instant gratification becomes commonplace, businesses — especially e-commerce sites — must adapt. Unhappy consumers may initiate a chargeback, which can hurt your business and result in higher credit card processing fees. Your credit card processor may even drop you. 

Here’s what businesses need to know about chargebacks and how to reduce them.

What is a chargeback?

A chargeback occurs when a cardholder asks their bank to reverse a credit card charge posted to their account. Chargebacks differ from refunds. Merchants issue refunds, while card issuers handle chargebacks. 

Customers might request a chargeback for several reasons, including the following: 

  • They didn’t receive the product or service.
  • The product or service description was inaccurate. 
  • The product was damaged or lost during shipping.
  • Duplicate billing occurred.
  • Recurring billing was not canceled as requested.
  • There was a technical error.
  • The charges were fraudulent.

Some issues are outside your control. For example, a product may have become lost or damaged during shipping. However, It’s crucial for brick-and-mortar and e-commerce retailers to reduce other issues, like billing errors, to help prevent chargebacks. 

Monica Eaton-Cardone, co-founder and CEO of Chargebacks911, says credit card chargebacks represent a real and growing financial threat to merchants. Too many chargeback claims can ruin a business’s reputation with banks.

“Banks gauge a merchant’s risk and reliability on the number of chargebacks they receive,” Eaton-Cardone explained. “Multiple chargebacks on a regular basis can lead to even greater merchant challenges down the road. Merchants are essentially ‘guilty until proven innocent.’ Chargeback fees and reimbursements are deducted from the merchant’s account automatically — no questions asked.”

Nydelis Ortiz, senior manager at LegitScript, says businesses that want to counter a cardholder’s chargeback claim have only a short time to gather information and submit a defense claim to the credit card issuer.

“The issuer will then review all documentation and determine who is liable for the transaction,” Ortiz noted. “If the merchant wins the dispute, then the liability either falls on the cardholder, the issuer or the acquirer to pay for the transaction in question, depending on the nature of the dispute and the supporting documentation. If the merchant loses the dispute, they are liable for returning the funds to the cardholder.”

FYIDid you know
Online businesses experience more chargebacks than brick-and-mortar stores because delivery failures, technical errors, customer unhappiness and credit card fraud are more likely to occur.

What are the costs and consequences of chargebacks?

Chargeback claims are never good. The financial and reputational consequences can harm your business if the situation is not rectified. 

Chargebacks lead to lost revenue.

The most obvious chargeback consequence is lost revenue. Even if a merchant wins a chargeback dispute, the credit card processing company charges a nonrefundable fee ranging from $20 to $100 per chargeback. This money is deducted from the merchant account for every chargeback filed. Additionally, the merchant is often liable for covering shipping costs and returning payment to the cardholder.

Chargebacks negatively impact a merchant’s reputation.

Chargeback claims negatively impact how banks and card issuers view your business. Even if you win a dispute, a chargeback reflects poorly on your company. If multiple claims are filed against you, you will be enrolled in a monitoring program, which becomes even more costly. 

“Chargeback monitoring requires the payment of another ongoing fee,” said Eaton-Cardone. “Certain merchants might receive a grace period before becoming fee-eligible, but high-risk merchants are usually hit with fees as soon as they enter the program. Businesses in a chargeback monitoring program are also subject to periodic reviews of their mitigation plan — yet another fee.”

Merchants who fail to reduce their chargeback rates may be charged higher processing fees or have their accounts frozen. On top of that, merchants who engage in frequent forced payment reversals may be added to the Terminated Merchant File, which would result in your business being blocklisted for five years.

FYIDid you know
Many of the best credit card processors have minimal or reasonable chargeback fees and refund the fees incurred if the merchant wins a chargeback dispute.

Is a chargeback reversible?

Although reversing a chargeback is technically possible, it’s not easy — and the odds aren’t in your favor. Card issuers typically side with cardholders, and their guidelines reflect this bias.

“When a chargeback is issued, merchants must respond to the case with all of the supporting documentation they have to back their claim that a payment was processed without error and that the goods or services rendered were satisfactory,” Ortiz explained. “If they do not respond, they are liable. If they do not provide enough documentation to back their claim, they are liable. If the issuer has additional information from the cardholder that supports their claim, they are liable.”

In some cases, consumers will dispute a legitimate purchase for fraudulent reasons. “When it comes to merchants’ chargeback rights being violated, the single greatest threat comes from friendly fraud, also called chargeback fraud,” warned Eaton-Cardone. “Experts estimate that over 85 percent of all chargebacks may be caused by friendly fraud — meaning they file a chargeback without valid justification.”

There are multiple reasons for chargeback fraud, including buyer’s remorse, dissatisfaction with the products or services provided, or confusion about the proper refund process.

“The only instance where a chargeback will be reversed is if the business submits a valid dispute backing their claim that the transaction was processed without error and the goods or services rendered were satisfactory,” said Ortiz. “Ultimately, it is up to the issuer to determine whether a chargeback will be reversed or not.”

Did You Know?Did you know
Accepting Apple Pay and other digital wallets can result in fewer chargebacks. Their security safeguards reduce fraud and boost consumer confidence.

How can you fight a chargeback dispute?

Never wait to fight a chargeback dispute. The sooner you address the issue, the more likely you are to experience a favorable outcome.

To fight the chargeback, you must submit a chargeback rebuttal letter. When a company notifies you of a chargeback, a reason code is attached to the document. Review the code to learn the reason for the chargeback and any other pertinent details. The reason code also presents a timeline to fight the chargeback and what evidence is needed to reverse the chargeback.

Review your credit card processor’s policies to understand its chargeback dispute process. Your business may not have to handle all chargeback cases — the processor will provide automatic representation in some instances. Don’t waste resources on chargeback incidents being handled externally. If you must provide documentation, submit the completed rebuttal form with the requested files quickly.

TipBottom line
In addition to chargeback issues, merchants should understand credit card payment processing rules and laws like the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard and the four levels of PCI compliance.

How do you protect your business against chargebacks?

It is essential to take protective measures to keep your business from falling victim to fraudulent chargeback claims. Eaton-Cardone recommends seeking a chargeback management service with an end-to-end, multitier approach that helps fight chargebacks while reducing the risk of future chargebacks.

“The best is a turnkey chargeback management system covering the entire chargeback process,” Eaton-Cardone advised.

Ortiz advises that brick-and-mortar businesses adopt EMV-capable terminals (chip readers) to reduce their liability risk for fraudulent transactions. Businesses that process card-present transactions and are not EMV compliant are liable for fraudulent transactions.

How can you reduce and avoid chargebacks?

Dissatisfied customers are the second-most common reason for chargebacks (fraud is the most common). Take preemptive measures to provide an excellent purchasing experience that will foster customer satisfaction

Eaton-Cardone recommends that businesses adopt the following best practices: 

  • Create standard procedures for accepting credit cards.
  • Train employees to ensure everyone follows the protocol. 
  • Evaluate your team periodically and update protocols as needed. 
  • Use the address verification system to authenticate cardholders. 
  • Consistently collect CVC2/CVV2 verification codes.

Additionally, consider the following ways to standardize business procedures and prevent chargebacks.

  • Create clear, detailed product or service descriptions. Lead with transparency in your customer interactions. Let them know exactly what they’re purchasing by providing clear and detailed product and service descriptions. Clear communication and transparency prevent chargebacks and improve brand reputation.
  • Enact a comprehensive, easy-to-understand refund policy. Businesses must have a clear refund policy to avoid chargebacks. Display your return policy at registers, post the information on your website, and add the details to each paper or digital receipt. Be as specific as possible, stating the return window, restocking fees and exclusions.
  • Use self-explanatory billing descriptors. Ensure all product descriptions reference the product or service by name; they should be clear and understandable on receipts. When clients receive a credit card bill, they should see your store name, the transaction date and the correct purchase amount. Additionally, maintain meticulous records to fight back against any fraudulent chargebacks.
  • Post company contact info clearly. Customers may open a chargeback out of frustration if they find it difficult to contact your customer service team. Set parameters for when customers can reach your business. For example, you may schedule customer service hours daily between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. local time. Return client messages promptly to nip issues in the bud.
  • Maintain and publish clearly defined shipping expectations. In the age of Amazon, many clients mistakenly expect lightning-fast shipping times. Small and midsize businesses must reiterate their expected shipping times. Advertise shipping policies on your website and provide a copy after each purchase.
  • Provide highly responsive customer service. Avoid customer service pitfalls like unanswered calls and emails. Nothing is more frustrating for customers than trying to contact a business about a problem with an order and not receiving a response. 
  • Analyze chargeback incidents. Analyze and review every chargeback incident. If you have detailed records, you’ll be better equipped to fight the chargeback. 
  • Be wary of suspicious purchases. Watch for suspicious purchases made via credit cards. Before you process the payment, investigate the charge and confirm its legitimacy. Credit card companies have protocols, including fraud alerts, to help protect consumers and businesses.
  • Understand chargeback regulations. Chargeback guidelines are updated regularly, so merchants must monitor regulations and adjust their procedures to reflect the most recent rules. 
  • Discover why you’re experiencing chargebacks. If your business’s chargeback rates increase, review your chargeback history and identify trends. “Are you receiving a lot of chargebacks due to fraud? This may be an opportunity to invest in an EMV-capable terminal,” Ortiz advised. “Are your chargebacks related to the quality of goods or services? This may be an opportunity to examine potential areas of improvement within the business.”
  • Handle legitimate complaints promptly. At some point, you’ll encounter a customer who must legitimately dispute a fraudulent charge. If they contact you before filing a chargeback, remedy the situation as soon as possible. While you may incur shipping fees and lost revenue, it’s better than dealing with a chargeback dispute (that you’ll likely lose) and a nonrefundable fee.
Did You Know?Did you know
Automate your phone and email system to provide more efficient customer service to help head off chargebacks. The automated messages should state when a customer can expect a callback and share essential information.

Manage your chargeback claims

Although dealing with chargeback claims can be time-consuming, proactively managing disputes can save you from unnecessary, painful losses to your bottom line.

“My advice is to be proactive and take measures to help reduce the number of chargebacks you are initially exposing yourself to, and if you’re strapped for time, maybe prioritize managing chargebacks that are above a certain dollar amount,” said Ortiz.

As a small business owner, you should have chargebacks on your radar to monitor and rectify promptly.

Jennifer Dublino contributed to this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

author image
Skye Schooley, Senior Lead Analyst & Expert on Business Operations
Skye Schooley is a dedicated business professional who is especially passionate about human resources and digital marketing. For more than a decade, she has helped clients navigate the employee recruitment and customer acquisition processes, ensuring small business owners have the knowledge they need to succeed and grow their companies. In recent years, Schooley has enjoyed evaluating and comparing HR software and other human resources solutions to help businesses find the tools and services that best suit their needs. With a degree in business communications, she excels at simplifying complicated subjects and interviewing business vendors and entrepreneurs to gain new insights. Her guidance spans various formats, including newsletters, long-form videos and YouTube Shorts, reflecting her commitment to providing valuable expertise in accessible ways.
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