Credit card disputes: Get your money back

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Consumers have rights when it comes to fraudulent credit card charges or charges for products and services that aren't what they paid for. The key to successfully challenging a charge is in knowing what to say and who to tell. That sounds elementary, right? Except Consumer Reports is saying that many consumers don't know their rights or how to enforce them.

Small dollar amounts are easy to dispute and resolve, as it's estimated that it costs a credit card company $25 for each charge it must investigate. This means they're likely to give refunds for small amounts without much work. It would cost more to investigate than to just give you your money. The credit card company also has to weigh the risk that you will close your account if your matter isn't resolved. They lose money when you do that.

Here are a few key points about your credit card: Report suspicions of credit card immediately to stop the harm. Most billing problems need to be disputed in writing, and many credit card companies don't recognize e-mail as "in writing." The credit card company must receive your letter within 60 days from the statement date, so don't wait. Include with your letter all copies of supporting documentation to help prove your claim.
Some of the most common billing disputes include: Unauthorized charges, which can often spring up because of an automatic charge that you've attempted to cancel, such as internet service. Failure to credit your account for returned items is common, so make sure you hang onto your receipt to prove the return. Issues with the quality of merchandise are harder to dispute, because once you've "accepted" the goods, many credit card companies won't give you a refund for low quality items.

A retail client of mine never successfully defended a claim by a credit card holder, even with all documentation intact. This suggests to me that consumers may have the upper hand in credit card disputes, so it pays to take the time to dispute bad charges and get your money back.

Tracy L. Coenen, CPA, MBA, CFE performs fraud examinations and financial investigations for her company Sequence Inc. Forensic Accounting, and is the author of Essentials of Corporate Fraud.
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