You pull out your debit card to reserve a spot for a bicycle tour of France or to buy a designer bag. But then the tour company goes bust or the bag turns out to be a cheap knockoff. Don't panic: even though you used your debit card instead of a credit card, your bank still might step in to help.
If you run into problems with a debit card purchase, you might wish you'd used credit, as you'd have better consumer protections and would be able to keep the money you spent in your bank account while hashing out problems with the seller. But you still can file a dispute and have a shot at getting your money back.
Chargeback rights -- the ability to dispute a charge when you have a billing error or other problem you can't resolve with a seller -- are spelled out in the federal Truth in Lending Act and the Fair Credit Billing Act, which only cover credit cards.
Consumers don't have the same rights with debit cards, says Monica Eaton-Cardone, COO and co-founder of Chargebacks911.com, a company that helps merchants prevent and fight chargebacks. "There's a huge difference," she says of credit vs. debit chargebacks.
With credit cards, chargeback rights allow you to withhold repayment to the credit card company for a particular purchase on which you file a dispute after a merchant refuses to work with you to resolve a problem with goods or services. Here are some scenarios that merit a dispute:
- The item never arrived. For example, you paid $500 for a treadmill from an online sporting good store, but the box never gets delivered to your door.
- The merchandise was faulty or not as described. For instance, you ordered carpet based on a sample you saw in a store. When yours arrives, it's cheap and shabby -- nothing like the sample.
- The merchant charged you the wrong amount. You bought a designer dress on sale, but the merchant charged you the full price and refuses to refund the difference.
These same protections, however, don't apply to debit cards. But consumers who experience similar problems with a debit card purchase are not completely out of luck. If you file a dispute over a charge on your debit card, your bank must look into the matter, says Dave Pommerehn, vice president and senior counsel for the Consumer Bankers Association.
"Banks will investigate -- they have a duty to investigate," he says.
The ins and outs of debit card disputes
Credit card companies make it easy to dispute a charge -- usually you just log into the issuer's website and click the dispute button next to the purchase amount, Eaton-Cardone says. With debit cards, though, the process varies by bank, and usually takes more time and effort on behalf of the cardholder, she says.
If you ran your debit card as "credit" -- that is, you didn't enter a PIN at the point of sale -- your bank has to follow dispute rules set out by Visa and MasterCard, Eaton-Cardone says. That's because you're using the credit card networks to process the transaction.
"Debit card issuers tend to be a lot more helpful when it comes to charges with a signature than those with a PIN," says Ruth Susswein, deputy director of national priorities for the consumer advocacy group Consumer Action.
To start the dispute process, your bank may ask you to fill out a form with the merchant's name, the transaction date and amount, and the reason for the dispute. Then, your bank will typically go to the merchant's bank to retrieve the money while it investigates, Eaton-Cardone says.
That doesn't mean you get that cash deposited right back into your checking account, though. Some banks may put the money into your account as soon as they get it -- with the caveat that if you ultimately lose the dispute, they'll take the funds back out. Meanwhile, other banks will hold onto that money during the investigation period, Eaton-Cardone says.
The merchant will have a chance to fight the chargeback by offering evidence that you're wrong, such as proof the item was delivered or that the charge was correct. A bank employee will look at the facts to decide who wins.
It can take 30 to 45 days to get the final verdict from your bank. "It can be a tedious process," Eaton-Cardone says.
Increase your odds of winning a debit card dispute
There are no guarantees when it comes to debit card disputes, but there are steps you can take to up your chances of success. Here are five debit card dispute tips:
- Contact the seller. No matter what type of card you used, it's always best to try to resolve your issues directly with the retailer or service provider first, Eaton-Cardone says. Most merchants want to keep their customers happy, she says.
- Be reasonable. Chargebacks are meant for situations where the merchant is in the wrong, not cases were you simply changed your mind, says Nessa Feddis, a senior vice president with the American Bankers Association. "If you buy something and then you decide you don't like the color, you need to take that up with the merchant," Feddis says.
- Call or visit your bank. With a debit card dispute, you'll probably need to call the customer service number for your bank or go into your local branch, Eaton-Cardone says. Contact your bank as soon as you know there's a problem, Pommerehn says. "Speed is really important," he says. "You want to be timely.
- Prove your case. When you submit the dispute to your bank, you should clearly explain why you're in the right and provide evidence to support your claims if you can. For example, you might send a receipt that shows the price was $99 when you were charged $199, a service contract, emails from the merchant promising a refund that never arrived or a photo of a faulty item. "Provide as much detail as you can," Pommerehn says.
- If you lose, complain. If your bank decides you don't get your money back, and you disagree with the decision, you can take another step, says Ira Rheingold, executive director and general counsel for the National Association of Consumer Advocates. File a complaint with the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), he says. The CFPB will follow up with your bank to ask it to act to fix the problem, Susswein says. "So you get another crack at trying to get a resolution," she says.
And, in the future, remember that it is best to use a credit card when you make a big purchase, buy something online or do business with a new-to-you seller or service provider. Then any dispute you have is protected by law, plus you don't run the risk of losing precious checking account funds.
"You definitely have more leverage when you use a credit card," Rheingold says.
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