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Consumer rights for credit and debit cards

By  and Emily Starbuck Gerson

Holiday shopping can be a dreaded and arduous task, so the last thing seasonal shoppers want to worry about is a credit card billing error. Susan Grant, director of the National Consumers League's fraud center, says consumers have stronger rights with credit cards than any other form of payment. As a wise shopper, be aware of your rights and take precautions to reduce the chance of encountering problems. 

Consumer rights: credit cards

•    If your credit card is lost or stolen and charges are made, you are not responsible for more than $50. Most issuers provide $0 liability coverage if you notify them very quickly.
•    You may be able to challenge charges from a merchant if you are unhappy with your purchase, as long as you do not pay the item off.  This should only happen after you have tried to resolve the issue with the seller, and the charge must be for more than $50.
•    You can dispute a credit card charge in certain cases and temporarily withhold your payment as it is investigated on the condition that you write to the credit card issuer at the proper billing inquiries address. The letter must reach the issuer within 60 days from when the statement listing the charge was mailed to you.
•    Should the seller go out of business, the card issuer can reimburse you for the cost of the purchase you never received.

Consumer rights: debit cards
•    When using a debit card to buy holiday items, you have a much shorter window for resolving issues, since money is quickly taken out of your account upon purchase.  You may owe up to $500 for the charges if you don't report the error within two days. If you wait too long, you may be responsible for all of the charges. Grant recommends using a credit card whenever possible because of the stronger protection it provides.
•    The bank must investigate any unauthorized debit card charges within 10 days of you notifying them.  If the issue is still not resolved after that, the bank is required to temporarily credit your account for at least part of the amount in question and continue its investigation, generally for 45 days.  If it turns out that no error is discovered, the bank can reclaim the money with a written explanation.
•    Unlike with a credit card, you generally cannot halt payment on a defective or undelivered item made with a debit card.

Consumer rights: Online purchases
For online purchases, a merchant must ship your order within the time listed on its website, regardless of the payment method you choose.  When no time frame is stated, your order must be sent within 30 days after the merchant received the order.  Grant says that if the product can't be delivered within 30 days, the merchant must notify you and give you the option of waiting or receiving a refund.

"If they haven't done that, contact the merchant and try to resolve it as soon as possible, since your protection is under a time limit," Grant says. "If the merchant's response is unsatisfactory or they don't respond, notify your credit card issuer. You must dispute charges within 60 days of your order, so do it as soon as possible and have proper documentation."

Disputing charges
If you decide to dispute an item on your credit card or debit card bill, the card issuer may do little more than pass on the merchant's response, or the issuer may simply indicate that it did not make a mistake.  If you are waiting for a dispute to be processed, experts recommend gathering the names of top management at the merchant where the problem occurred, contacting those people about your problem and asking for a store credit. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency advises consumers to hold on to their receipts from purchases. If an unauthorized charge pops up on your statement, you can then more easily dispute it.

The U.S. P.I.R.G., the federation of state public interest research groups, recommends sending e-mail copies of any debit card dispute to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency at Customer.Assistance@occ.treas.gov.

Caveat emptor
Grant has a final warning for online holiday shoppers: "One thing to recognize is that despite having lots of rights when making a credit card purchase, it's cold comfort if you don't get the gift for that person in time," she says. "If it's very important for you to get something by a certain date and you haven't dealt with that site before, I suggest looking for the item in the physical world or exploring other options."

Awareness of these rights and issues as you tackle gift shopping can save you from many problems that could cast shadows on your holiday season.  

Published: December 5, 2007


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