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How to Dispute a Credit Card Charge

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 [3] 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 [4] 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.