8 steps to fighting chargeback fraud

By Gwen Moran

Credit card chargeback fraud is a persistent problem for merchants and can be hard to detect. But there are ways small-business owners can fight back.

Fraudulent chargebacks include cases of identity theft and so-called "friendly fraud," in which a customer deceptively says a product or service was never ordered or was not delivered. Friendly fraud accounts for 18 percent of all merchants' fraud cases, according to the 2014 LexisNexis True Cost of Fraud Study

8 steps to fighting chargeback fraud

Usually, you won't hear from the customer if they're committing friendly fraud, says John Monarch, CEO of Direct Outbound, a Greenville, South Carolina, call center firm that provides chargeback dispute services. Many customers go straight to their card issuer as a matter of convenience, whether their chargeback is a result of someone misusing their credit card, friendly fraud, or even incorrect chargebacks that are a result of not recognizing the purchase. A 2014 survey by Trustev found that 17 percent of U.S. consumers have disputed charges without contacting an online merchant, and 7 percent admitted to lying about the condition of a product so they could return it for a refund.   

If chargeback fraud goes unchecked, the consequences can be severe. Too many chargebacks could prompt your acquiring bank to terminate your account. That could make it almost impossible to get a new account, according to Tim Russo, fraud prevention team leader at cleverbridge, an e-commerce technology firm in Chicago. 

Russo says card associations use a database known as MATCH, which stands for Member Alert to Control High-Risk Merchants (previously known as the Terminated Merchant File, or TMF). The system is used by MasterCard and Visa processing banks to identify merchants that have had their accounts terminated. Once a merchant is on this list it is highly unlikely that future merchant account applications will be approved. "The TMF, or MATCH list, is essentially a blacklist from which it is almost impossible to be removed," says Russo.

Determining whether your business has a chargeback fraud problem can be tricky. However, there are several important signs that fraud is an issue, as well as some smart ways to prevent it -- or, at least, fight it when it happens. 

1. Understand your risk. Merchants who do business online are at particular risk of chargeback fraud because they are not able to see the credit card being used or check a customer's identification or signature, says Monarch. As a result, it can be easier for fraudsters to use stolen credentials to order merchandise online. In addition, because the merchandise is often shipped without a signature required for delivery, it can be easier for friendly fraud perpetrators to claim the product was never received. 

The problem is growing, too. The LexisNexis study found that 51 percent of the fraud experienced by merchants who accept online transactions comes from the online channel, compared to 42 percent in 2013.

Knowing that you're more vulnerable to risk gives you an indication that you need to be more vigilant about verifying what you can and tracking fraud overall, Monarch says. 

2. Flag verification issues. Erik Van Riper, founder of Build the Store, a San Fernando, California, online business that builds e-commerce platforms for other companies, says preventing fraud requires using all possible verification components when fulfilling a transaction. If the card is present, ask for identification. If it's not, you need to take other measures.

"One thing that we insist on for any credit card transaction is that the billing address matches the credit card billing address. The shipping address can be different, but we insist that at least the knowledge of the billing address is there, and correct," he says. If the purchaser can't provide this verification, the transaction is not approved. 

3. Look for unusual activity. From there, Van Riper recommends monitoring transactions for unusual activity, such as orders for high volumes of product or for many expensive items of the same type or brand. Review the location of the transaction. If the billing address is in New York and the customer is shipping to a place in Oregon, you may wish to further verify the transaction by contacting the customer. Set a threshold -- say, $100 -- and require a signature on the package for any shipment valued at more than that amount, he recommends.

4. Examine notification codes. When you receive a chargeback, it will have a reason code. Each code, which varies by card network, will indicate the reason for the chargeback, such as "counterfeit magnetic stripe" or "fraud, card not present environment." Once you have the code, investigate the transaction to spot irregularities, says Russo. Were there missed indicators that this was a fraudulent transaction? 

5. Review nonfraud chargebacks and declines. Don't just scan your reason codes for fraud. Investigate other reason codes and your decline rates, Russo says.

High decline rates may signal a problem with attempted fraud. But some codes might indicate customers don't recognize their transactions, he says. If you see those codes regularly, it could mean you need to work with your credit card processing company to clarify the descriptor that appears on customers' credit card statements. It's also a good idea to include a telephone number on the descriptor, if possible, so customers can easily contact you if they have questions about charges. 

The bottom line is to track the reasons for your chargebacks and try to take steps to remedy them. If you're not tracking this data, you could have a problem before you even know it. "Tracking customers that have charged back is usually a good idea, because if it was a case of 'friendly fraud' there's the chance that it will be done again," Monarch says.

6. Make your case. If a chargeback has been filed, the bank will ask for all records you have verifying that the order is real. Be sure to provide those in a timely manner, Monarch says. They may include terminal records, signatures and any other information available for in-person transactions. Online transaction backup may include address verification and CVV verification, IP address information that coordinates with the purchaser's address, and product delivery records with delivery confirmation showing the customer received the package.

The TMF, or MATCH list, is essentially a blacklist from which it is almost impossible to be removed.

-- Tim Russo
Fraud prevention team leader, cleverbridge

Monarch says it's usually not helpful to try to contact the customer if they have already initiated a chargeback. "The chargeback is on record against you at this point," he explains. "Even if you win and get your money back, it still counts against your merchant account for the month. 

"The best plan of attack, if it's already filed, is to simply gather as much data as possible, write up a detailed document regarding how one purchases your product or service, and submit all of this to the acquiring bank, which will have mailed or faxed you a chargeback letter," he says.

7. Get your data. At MasterCard, the central repository for fraud data is the System to Avoid Fraud Effectively (SAFE), which supports fraud prevention programs and security efforts, Russo says. All MasterCard issuers are required to report fraudulent transactions to SAFE at least monthly. SAFE then generates reports for both issuers and acquirers and provides data for other security and risk management programs, as well as merchant audit programs.

Your credit card processing company likely has access to this data, Russo says. Asking your processor for as much of that information as possible may be helpful if you have a series of fraudulent transactions of less than $30 (the threshold at which you are typically notified) that are caught before they get to you. He admits it can be hard to get a full accounting of this type of activity, but the more volume you do and the better relationship you build with your processor, the more likely it is to help you.

8. Work with your processor. Russo, who has previously been employed by two processing companies, says these firms may have additional resources to help you combat fraud, such as suggestions for enhancing security and advice on how to better verify transactions. Stay in touch with your processing company to ensure that you're adopting the latest and best practices to prevent fraudulent transactions, he says.

Spotting chargeback fraud can be tricky, but by knowing where to look and using that information to improve your operations, you can stave off losses. It's not a one-and-done activity, though. Small businesses must be vigilant to minimize chargeback fraud on an ongoing basis.

See related: 8 tips for merchants to avoid credit card chargebacks, 3 ways to minimize holiday returns without losing customers, Disputing an auto repair chargeback is possible but time-consuming, Can retailers ask for ID with your credit card?

Published: May 19, 2015

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