You get home, and the vase you just bought has a crack. Or the roofer who eagerly took the down payment doesn't call back. Or the drill won't.
Sooner or later, almost every consumer has a dispute with a merchant over goods or services.
In such cases, you can and should gripe directly to the merchant, but consumers who use credit cards to make purchases have an added layer of protection when disputes arise -- if they know how to use it.
Here's how it works.
The players and their roles When a dispute arises, consumer can take steps to resolve it, but the complex landscape means success is not guaranteed. Six players are involved, all with different motivations. When a credit card is used in a disputed purchase, the six parties to a dispute are:
The consumer: You bought it, but you don't like it.
The consumer's card issuer: This is the financial institution that issued the credit card to the consumer. Many issuers offer protection to the consumer beyond the minimums set under federal law, and an issuer may offer help or mediation in a dispute.
The merchant: Its return policies, its desire to keep you as a customer and its level of fear of the credit card giants will set the initial playing field.
The merchant bank: This is the bank the merchant uses to accept credit cards for transactions. Disputes are a hassle to the merchant bank.
The law: Under the Fair Credit Billing Act, credit card purchases get some protection.
The transaction processor: Visa, MasterCard, Discover and American Express all have giant networks that pass money along to make credit card transactions work. Each has its own rules for participating merchants, merchant banks and card issuers.
The interplay between all six players will determine whether you actually can return that defective gadget or get your down payment back. But in general, paying by credit card gives consumers an advantage in the game. That's because consumers may enlist their credit card issuers to help mediate or resolve disputes.
"A dispute right may potentially be available if the cardholder can document and support with corroborating documentation, a mischaracterization of the described goods or services or dispute concerning the established quality of goods or services provided to the cardholder," says MasterCard spokeswoman Joanne Trout.
A dispute right may potentially be available if ...
-- Joanne Trout, MasterCard spokeswoman
What federal law does, doesn't cover
Let's start with consumers' legal rights.
The Fair Credit Billing Act was passed in 1975 as an amendment to the Truth in Lending Act. True to its name, the billing act's primary goal is to establish consumers' rights when goofs occur on the bill -- unauthorized charges, fraudulent charges, math errors, billing addressing mistakes and the like. The Federal Trade Commission website lays out those rights in detail, and includes a sample letter people can use to object formally to mistakes on billing statements.
One section of the act (Section 170) covers disputes about the quality of goods or services. The first thing to understand about it is it bestows no rights to consumers in regard to merchants, so if you're dissatisfied with a purchase, don't wave the act in a merchant's face like a magic refund wand.
The act instead allows consumers to take action against credit card companies, under restricted circumstances.
Allows consumers, when dissatisfied, to sue or assert other defenses against their credit card companies.
Requires consumers to make a "good faith attempt to obtain satisfactory resolution of a disagreement or problem relative to the transaction" from merchants.
Restricts these rights to transactions exceeding $50.
Requires the purchase to have been made in the same state as the consumer's address, or within 100 miles of the consumer's address.
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Card issuers' additional protection Because the law lets consumers sue them, and because they want their customers to like them, the larger credit card issuers have voluntarily waived the act's $50 and geographic limits and will help in any dispute.
So if you have already made a good faith attempt to resolve the issue with a merchant, and you're still dissatisfied, it's time to escalate the issue, enlist your credit card issuer's help and seek a "charge-back."
What is a charge-back?
A charge-back, in essence, reverses a credit card sales transaction. The Visa merchant agreement defines it as "a transaction that a card issuer returns to a merchant bank as a financial liability and which, in turn, a merchant bank may return to a merchant." Got it? The debt for the purchased item gets pushed back up the line: from you, to your card issuer, to the merchant's bank and back to the merchant, all through the transaction processor's network. It removes a charge from a cardholder's bill and -- through the middlemen -- "charges back" the amount to the merchant. (See "How credit card transactions work.)"
It's a big stick for the consumer. With a charge-back, the merchant loses a sale and eats the costs of processing the charge-back. In addition, a merchant who has too many charge-backs faces additional charges from card processing companies.
Card issuer as ally Consumers whose good faith attempts with merchants have failed should contact their credit card issuers to seek a charge-back.
At that point, card issuers can turn into valuable allies.
For example, Chase says it becomes an advocate for its customers.
"We try to make the dispute process clear and simple for our customers and provide a variety of ways to initiate a purchase dispute through the service channel the customer most prefers," says Chase spokeswoman Elaine Franck.
Chase customers can call the bank to file a dispute with a specially trained dispute advocate, or go to Chase.com and submit a dispute real-time online or submit a dispute in writing.
"We can even conference in the merchant with the customer on the line to expedite the process. If further review is necessary, we remove the purchase amount in question from the customer's balance while we investigate," Franck says.
DISSATISFIED? TAKE THESE STEPS
If you have purchased something with a credit card and are dissatisfied, take these steps:
Contact your credit card issuer if the merchant won't assist you. Tell the card issuer you would like to dispute a charge.
Give the necessary information to the card issuer. You may be asked to fill out a form and supply documentation.
Move quickly: You can't withhold a payment after paying the bill.
Some card issuers will remove a charge from a bill while it is under dispute, but it is a two-way process. Merchants can assert they were correct in a dispute, in which case the card processing company makes a decision. Both Visa and MasterCard have arbitration procedures that may result in a disputed charge being finally dismissed -- or reinstated on a consumer's bill.
If a consumer still isn't satisfied, the courts are the only recourse.
But the credit card companies' dispute processes do give an alternative short of lawyering up. For example, Bank of America helped Denise Bauwens, a Pennsylvania resident, receive a $300 refund for a set of teak rocking chairs from an online store.
When the chairs she long wanted arrived, Bauwens says, one was broken. She sent several e-mails to the online retailer and "called every other day for two weeks. No response," Bauwens says.
She filed the dispute paperwork through Bank of America and 10 days later, the charge was taken off her card.
"They considered it an appropriate dispute," she says.
Freelance writer Fred Minnick contributed to this report.
Updated: December 25, 2012
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