How to Dispute a Credit Card Charge

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Last month, I went to a Trader Joe’s to buy a package of coffee filters. For whatever reason, their packages of unbleached cone filters are always remarkably cheaper than anywhere else, despite Trader Joe’s higher end reputation. On this particular trip, there was some sort of technical problem with the register. I would swipe my card, sign in the box, and then the system would skip the receipt printout step. Each time (this happened three times), the person working the counter would politely insist that charge didn’t go through and we’d have to swipe it again. We did this three times.

Unfortunately, the only technical problem was that a receipt wasn’t printed and it wasn’t until a week later that I saw I had three charges for one box of coffee filters. The tricky annoying part about all this was that the charges were for only $1.80 each, which meant I was only out $3.60. Part of me wished it was more like $360 so that be more worth my time to deal with it!

If you need to dispute a credit card charge, here’s what you should do:

  1. Understand the law. Consumers are protected by the Fair Credit Billing Act and we have the right to dispute a credit card purchase or withhold payment for a purchase if it satisfies certain conditions. It pays to know these rules even if you don’t have a pending dispute so if you’re unfamiliar, I recommend giving this a once over.
  2. Try to resolve it with the merchant. This should always be your first step because this is the easiest path to resolution. If you can convince the merchant that they made a mistake, then you won’t need to involve the credit card company. If you reach out to the merchant, I always try an informal approach followed by a formal, certified mail, return receipt requested approach if being a nice guy doesn’t work. Some companies are reasonable, some companies are not.
  3. Dispute the charge with the credit card company. If you can’t get the merchant to agree or you can’t locate the merchant, then the credit card company is your only other option. With credit card companies I recommend using their online dispute system if they have one, then certified mail, return receipt requested if they don’t.
  4. If the credit card company rejects you and the merchant argues, go bigger. Contact your local Better Business Bureau for assistance if you feel you have a good case or even local media. Many local news stations love to do consumer protection pieces and it could be enough to change the merchant’s mind about the situation. If it’s a large merchant, consider enlisting the assistance of The Consumerist or use an EECB to get the results you want.

However, the most important tip to take away from this is how to avoid disputable charges in the first place. If there’s something non-trivial (we use $50-$100, depending on the product, as our bar), save your receipt and warranty if they exist. Your credit card will protect you from outright fraud but there are a lot of gray areas where documentation will be very important. If there is any ambiguity, try to have it clarified before you buy.

In the end, I opted to let the charges go because it just didn’t make sense for me to make the trip and spend the time required to get the charges reversed.

{ 38 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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38 Responses to “How to Dispute a Credit Card Charge”

  1. nickel says:

    Interesting that the credit card wasn’t refused. We were on vacation once and I tried to make two identical-value purchases in a row with a credit at a local souvenir shop and the second one was declined by the card issuer (or by someone behind the scenes — maybe the processing network?). Regardless, I was unable to make two identical purchases back-to-back, presumably for fear that it was an accidental duplicate purchase.

    • CK says:

      This depends on the point of sale system and credit processor. Some do have this function built in to avoid these situations. It may also not have kicked in as the purchase amount was so low.

    • Soccer9040 says:

      This has happened to me before when I was trying to take advantage of some deal at a store. You know the ones…Limit 4…blah blah. So I would go thru self checkout twice but have to add a pack of gum or something to make the transaction go through.

  2. CK says:

    This is really common. If the transaction completes and the only thing that doesn’t happen is the receipt printing it’s the printer. If the charge did not go through for some reason the cashier will almost always (99.99%) get an error message of some sort.

    I would just call the Trader Joes and let them know what happened. They should be able to see the issue in their logs and quickly issue you a credit. They may even offer a gift card for the trouble. Or just say something next time you stop in.

  3. Years ago, I was on a business trip in Calfornia. I went out to dinner with a bunch of people from my company.

    Every single person in the group had their card charged incorrectly. The gross charges for the group were correct, but everyone in the group was charged for someone else’s meal.
    It wasn’t very difficult to straighten out, since I had a signed receipt showing the correct (considerably lower) amount for my meal.

  4. Laura says:

    The one time, several years ago, that I had an erroneous charge placed on my credit card, I found it much easier o fix than you describe. My credit card company included a form for disputing erroneous charges on the back of statements. I simply filled it out, added a note that I could not remember any transaction with that retailer in the past month and that I had actually been out of town on the date in question. The credit card compay erased the charges o nthe next bill, no questions asked. My parents have generally found it this simple as well (though a simple letter is required, as their card company doesn’t provide a form)

    • Soccer9040 says:

      Yea its pretty simple from the consumers point of view. I have some experience on the retailer’s side and when a charge is disputed they just reverse the cash right out of our account. These chargebacks are kind of annoying because then it onus is on us to prove it was right. Basically the “innocent until proven guilty” well in credit card terms its “The purchaser is always right, unless the retailer can prove differently”

      • Lindsay says:

        “The purchaser is always right, unless the retailer can prove differently”

        That is absolutely true. I’ve seen it from the retailer’s side, too, and see too many instances where the consumer outright lies to their credit card company on their disputes. They will claim that they contacted our customer service department first and that we refused to resolve the issue (even though they never did) or say that they were not aware of any ongoing charges when our enrollment policy clearly states it in multiple locations of their order form.

  5. cubiclegeoff says:

    I’m surprised fraud protection didn’t catch this. We had a similar instance happen when buy lift tickets at a ski resort one day and they said the first didn’t go through so they swiped again. Our card instantly called us and said there could be a fraudulent charge and they quickly reversed one of them. We didn’t need to contact them, talk to the ski resort or do anything.

    • Jim says:

      I think it’s because the cost was so small that it went undetected?

      • cubiclegeoff says:

        I would think that would be more of a reason to call since people stealing cards often do small purchases to make sure the card works.

        • freeby50 says:

          I think it really depends on the policy of the bank in question. I’ve have one bank that is very active in monitoring transactions and calling me over things they think might be suspicious. Other banks I never hear anything from ever. So in my experience at least it seems to vary a lot from bank to bank.

          I did get a call once cause I charged $1 on a card at a convenience store and apparently that kind of charge is a red flag for fraud since a card thief might charge $1 to see if the card is working.

  6. I understand your point about it not being worth the time it would take you to have the charges reversed. I just had a similar thing happen to me at Shoprite where I was overcharged $2.98 and didn’t notice until I got home. My wife told me to go back and get refunded but it’s just not worth the trouble.

    • Jim says:

      I submitted a dispute with Citi, since I can do it online, but driving to the Trader Joes just isn’t going to be worth it.

      • eric says:

        I’ve done a dispute with Citi before too for a duplicate charge. They credited me almost right away the amount and brought it up with the merchant.

  7. Chuck says:

    I’ve never had a dispute go against me. Even for the credit card’s internal “upselling” department. (Discover charged me for their “wallet protection plan” which I would never have agreed to. I called them demanded my money back and it was solved in about 2 minutes.) Discover reversed the charges on two outright frauds, Citi reversed on a fraudulent Internet camera dealer. (It turns out that most Internet camera dealers are frauds. Now I know!) In my opinion, this is the greatest thing about credit cards, and why I would never use a debit card if I could avoid it.

  8. Scott says:

    You could have just printed out a copy of the statement and brought it with you next time you went to TJ’s. That would take a minimal amount of time and you would get your cash. It’s not like you have to make a special trip to correct the error. It would be about the same amount of inconvenience as printing out a $3.60 coupon and bringing it with you.

  9. ziglet19 says:

    I had a case like this as well, a duplicate charge under $10 showed up on my statement. I didn’t know I should go to the merchant first. I called me credit card, they looked at the two charges and saw they were identical and appeared to be duplicates, and immediately removed it. Definately easier than I thought. I also had a case where I had an unauthorized charge that I didn’t recognize. It was also only about $10, but I called me credit card and they send me an affidavit to sign. I waffled about it, becuase it had to be notarized, and the cost of the notary was more than the charge. Luckily, I found a notary to notarize it for me for in exchange for a bottle of beer.

  10. Infinion says:

    ziglet, for reference, your bank probably has a notary you can use for free. I’ve never had a problem just calling the CC company and asking to have a charge reversed. They’ve never asked me to sign anything or show any proof. I suppose as long as the merchant doesn’t complain about it, the CC doesn’t really care.

  11. I have had a good experience with disputing a charges on my credit card. I disputed a charge from a company that would not answer support calls and they had already charged me for a product I had not yet received. Chase took care of the charge and it was taken off soon after.

  12. jsbrendog says:

    thanks i will def review the fair credit billing act. so if (god forbid) i ever have to dispute something I will be informed.

    educated consumer ftw

  13. Stefanie says:

    I know you say you only go to TJs for coffee filters (how you can do that, I don’t know, since a lot of their other stuff in general is so damn good), but one option would have been to return there with your statement printed out (or just this triple charge) and ask for 2 more boxes of coffee filters – you already paid for them after all, and then you wouldn’t have to go back there for a long while. TJs is generally really good about making things right with their customers when something doesn’t work out.

  14. OneHitWonder says:

    I had a dispute with a VISA check card (the kind that is attached to your personal checking account) purchase involving fraudulent phone charges at dirt-bag motel.

    Now get this… the local bank branch was too small to have a more sophisticated research dept, so some clerical clown (at my bank) called the motel to ‘verify’ the charges. ha.. ha.. {…talk about fox guarding the henouse…}

    Is there a representative at VISA hq that has more power to do something in situations where check cards are involved? Are local check cards also covered by this protections the same way the big banks are?

  15. Cheap Bastard says:

    The reason Jim’s second point is important:

    * Disputes lower your credit score. A chargeback here and there doesn’t make much difference, but they can have a cumulative effect.

    • Soccer9040 says:

      I’ve never heard that before, but then again “they” have all sorts of records to keep track of your spending habits. I’m sure they probably keep track of it at the visa level, but I doubt it would ever effect your score.

      I do know some stores will reject your returns (Target – the worst store in the world) if you return too many things in a given time.

  16. Jim says:

    I don’t think dispute lower your credit score, where did you read that?

    • Cheap Bastard says:

      I don’t have a source for that.. it’s just something I’ve read in the forums and various places. The idea is that because the dispute process generally favors the consumer, card holders are encouraged to use it, and when a particular card holder has a long history of disputes, they are less desirable for the issuer, and new lenders. It costs money for them to investigate, and affects their bottom line.

  17. SavingEverything says:

    Cheap is right. The merchant/retailer usually receives the dispute (they get a “chargeback” or reversal of charges in their merchant accounts), and they can dispute it within a strict time limit. Sometimes, the credit card company just absorbs the loss of duplicate or triplicate charges; nowadays, they’ll just send chargeback or reversal to merchant. But, if you go to the store, then it would be a hassle and hard to really prove to the manager that you did or did not just buy 3 of the same items within just a few minutes’ time. (of course, in my store, a good inventory system would tell me how many items are still on shelf and would tell me if you really bought just one or three.) It’s so much easier to call your credit card company.

  18. BrianC says:

    Someone once charged a computer and several other high-price items using my card number. The dispute process went well–I just had to fill out a standardized form, get it notarized, and the disputed charges were removed.

  19. thomas says:

    on my work amex, i always seem to get double charged, particularly with taxis. always keep your receipts!

  20. Last week I wrote about How NOT to dispute a Credit Card Charge…it was a little role reversal since I was the “creditor” in that instance.

    I’d also add…knowing the merchant’s refund / exchange policy in advance helps…though I don’t know if that would apply to your situation since it was a technical error.

  21. seethepositive says:

    yes 3.60 is a lot of trouble. i was successful in calling the credit card company when this happened to me.there were 2 nights lodging and i remembered my card had been swept twice.

  22. Andrew Lin says:

    I would at least print out the credit card statement and show Trader Joe’s next time you shop there. If Trader Joe’s gives you a hard time over $4 I think it’s time to shop elsewhere.

  23. Helen Webster says:

    I have been charged $5.00 on my debit card from Facebook. I have not purchased anything, how can I find out what the charge is for and get it taken off my card.

  24. Maria Rojas Gonzalez says:

    I wish I would know the real reason that American
    Express is delaying the refund due me from a
    fraudulent company in AZ called Al State Web Solutions. Beware prospective customers!
    Al State Web Solutions called me with the offer of leads and services they never sent.
    I made the mistake to charge this “offer” to my
    American Express and now American Express is taking more than 8 weeks and had not issue a refund to me. It looks like Al State is also their customer and American Express is using the delay please them.

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