Credit card users who feel helpless when dealing with merchants that provide shoddy goods and services should know they have a powerful tool available to them: chargebacks.
A chargeback occurs when a credit card holder disputes a charge and the transaction is reversed. People tend to think of chargebacks as remedies for billing errors or fraudulent purchases. But consumers can also dispute a charge if they're dissatisfied with the quality of merchandise, service or delivery and the merchant refuses to make things right, according to the federal Fair Credit Billing Act.
Experts say that although the law hasn't changed, the power of chargebacks has surged, to the point that banks and credit card processors typically side with consumers. When Consumers' Checkbook, a nonprofit rater of local service vendors, asked its members to share stories about chargebacks in 2016, more than 100 replied, and 90 percent said they were successful, according to Executive Director Kevin Brasler.
Disputing a charge allows consumers to at least temporarily avoid paying without risking damage to their credit. They can also dispute paid charges from previous billing cycles. And the process has become as simple as making a few clicks from an online bank statement or taps in a bank smartphone app.
"It's really easy to do," Brasler says. Consumers' Checkbook has called the chargeback "a consumer superweapon."
A TOOL TO BE USED JUDICIOUSLY
But with the great power of a chargeback comes great responsibility.
Chargebacks are costly to retailers. Not only do they lose money from disputed sales, but they also incur chargeback fees and potentially higher processing rates. Credit card processors may even drop retailers that have too many chargebacks.
A January 2016 study by researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City found that the overwhelming majority of successful chargebacks — 80 to 90 percent — from 2013 to 2014 were resolved as a "merchant liability."
Merchants would prefer consumers dispute charges as a last resort, as the law intended. But because the process has become so easy, retailers say some customers use a chargeback instead of returning an unwanted item for a refund or getting in touch to work out a solution. Consumers might even dispute charges in an attempt to get their money back and keep the merchandise, a behavior sometimes dubbed "friendly fraud."
"One of the rules is, you have to try to work it out with the merchant first," Brasler says. "That's only fair."
And as merchants incur the costs of chargebacks, they pass them along to consumers in the form of higher prices, says Craig Shearman, spokesman for the National Retail Federation.
"Most retailers are very glad to work with their customers. They want to resolve the dispute and have a happy customer come back," Shearman says.
WHY CHARGEBACKS ARE ON THE RISE
Retailers report a surge in chargebacks following a behind-the-scenes change related to the new security chips in credit cards. On Oct. 1, 2015, liability for in-person fraudulent purchases switched from banks to retailers if the disputed charge came from a credit card equipped with an anti-fraud microchip, but the retailer's card reader didn't accept chip cards.
Some retailers who usually saw a few hundred dollars' worth of chargebacks per year were suddenly seeing thousands' worth, Shearman says. Much of that was due to fraud, but consumer disputes were also being automatically charged to retailers who didn't yet have chip-card readers, he adds.
"There's been a surge in malicious chargeback activity in the past year and half or so . and a certain number of consumers are taking advantage, too," Shearman says. The retail federation wasn't able to quantify the problem, he adds.
Brasler says merchants' fear of chargebacks has given consumers new power that they should use sparingly. "Don't be shy about saying, 'I have this option, and I'll use it if I have to,'" he says.
This article was provided to The Associated Press by the personal finance website NerdWallet. Email staff writer Gregory Karp: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @spendingsmart.