Understanding chargebacks and how to prevent them

Learn what chargebacks are, how the process works, and ways you can avoid them.

Chargebacks were introduced to offer consumers an easy way to dispute suspicious transactions and to protect them from fraud. But for businesses, chargebacks can put revenue at risk, especially as friendly fraud becomes more common.

Although chargebacks are a part of doing business (and a good sign that your risk management strategy isn't overly strict), there are ways to reduce them.

This article will explore what chargebacks are, how the process works, and ways you can prevent and respond to them.

What’s a chargeback?

A chargeback is when a payment is reversed after a customer disputes a charge on their account statement.

For example:

The customer might have received a damaged product. Or maybe the merchant made a processing error and accidentally charged the customer twice. In these cases, a customer can file a chargeback with their bank for transactions made on credit or debit cards.

Once approved, the customer receives the transaction amount back in full. But if the merchant disagrees with the chargeback claim, they have the chance to defend it.

Learn how the iconic footwear brand Hunter reduced chargeback fraud by 90%

Read case study

Chargebacks vs. refunds

Although chargebacks and refunds both involve the return of funds, they’re very different.

Mostly, customers can ask for a refund directly from the merchant within their refund policy. But sometimes, the merchant might reject the refund request.

Maybe the merchant claims the product wasn’t damaged on arrival or believes the package was actually delivered on time. If there’s a difference in opinion, the customer may request a chargeback.

With a chargeback, the customer contacts the bank (not the business) to reverse the payment. The chargeback process takes longer and involves a few more stages than a refund. And any fees associated with a chargeback are significantly higher than a refund.

How do chargebacks work?

The chargeback process differs depending on the payment provider. On a basic level, a customer requests a chargeback and the bank validates it. Funds are taken from the merchant’s account and then returned to the customer. After this happens, the merchant may dispute the chargeback.

In a bit more detail, it usually looks like this:

how the chargeback process looks
  1. The cardholder files a chargeback via their bank. They usually have up to 120 days after purchase to dispute a charge, though some card schemes allow up to 365 days.
  2. The issuer reviews the case, assigns a reason code, and initiates the chargeback.
  3. The card scheme receives the chargeback and forwards it to the acquirer.
  4. The acquirer receives the chargeback and debits the funds from the merchant’s account. The acquirer also charges the merchant a fee ranging between $5-100.
  5. The merchant reviews the chargeback and provides a defense document if they choose to challenge it. They must defend the chargeback within 14-40 days (see specific time frames per scheme here). The acquirer forwards the merchant decision through the scheme to the issuer.
  6. The issuer reviews the defense document and decides to accept or decline.
  7. If the issuer accepts the defense, the acquirer returns the funds to the merchant.

If the issuer declines the merchant’s defense, they can argue against it. This is called a second chargeback, which is usually refused.

If the issuer declines the second chargeback, you can go through a third round, called arbitration. Arbitration is often not advised as the fees are particularly high (up to $500 on top of the disputed amount).

Learn more about the dispute flow and process in our docs page

Go to docs page

Reasons for chargebacks

When the issuer approves the chargeback from the cardholder, they assign a reason code. Each card scheme has a different set of reason codes, but they all fall into one of the following groups:

Fraud

The cardholder claims they didn’t make or authorize the transaction.

Consumer disputes

The product wasn’t as described or didn’t arrive by the expected delivery date. Or the cardholder was informed the payment wasn’t processed.

Processing errors

Some of the payment information was incorrect. This could include information like the amount, currency, or account number.

Authorization

The payment couldn’t be authorized, or the authorization was declined.

Read the full list of chargeback reason codes per card issuer.

Go to list

How to prevent chargebacks

Chargebacks can cost businesses both the purchase amount as well as additional fees. Banks and card networks may also penalize you if your chargeback ratio (the percentage of chargebacks of your transactions) becomes too high.

Preventing chargebacks is more important than defending them. Even if you win the chargeback defense, it’ll still count against your chargeback ratio.

Although you can't avoid chargebacks altogether, there are ways to lower the amount. Here’s what to focus on:

Make returns easy

  • Refund as quickly as possible when the customer requests one
  • Have a clear returns policy
  • Provide your email address and phone number on your website and emails so that the customer can easily contact you

Get the goods to the customer on time

  • Set a realistic delivery date. If there are delays, let the customer know as soon as possible.
  • Refund customers proactively if you can't provide the goods/services by the expected delivery date
  • Track your goods to monitor their delivery date. Ask the customer to sign for the package on delivery for extra security.

Avoid any miscommunication

  • Ensure the payment descriptor of your bank account is clear and accurate
  • Respond to any customer questions quickly
  • Alert your customers if a product is out of stock as soon as possible
  • Provide detailed product descriptions on your website

Prevent fraud

Learn more about beating payments fraud

Read article

How to dispute chargebacks

After a chargeback is initiated, you’ll receive a Notification of Chargeback (NoC). From this point, you can choose to defend the chargeback within 14-40 days (see the exact time frame per card scheme).

Start by reviewing the case and the reason code to understand why you received the chargeback and if it’s worth disputing.

When is it worth disputing a chargeback?

Dispute Don't dispute
You think the transaction is legitimate You know the transaction is fraudulent
The transaction amount is considerable The transaction amount is low

Build a case with as much evidence as possible. Try to collect all your interactions with the customer to help disprove the chargeback claim.

For instance, if the cardholder claims they didn’t take part in a transaction, you could provide:

  • evidence of their previous undisputed purchases
  • proof of delivery at the cardholder’s address
  • or any contact they’ve had with your customer service team

See more examples of evidence you can use to defend a chargeback

See examples

Some payment providers, like Adyen, will automatically defend chargebacks if the case is straightforward. For example, if you’ve already refunded a transaction before the cardholder filed for the chargeback, Adyen’s auto-defense feature will defend it with no action needed on your part.

Once you’ve submitted the defense, the card issuer will either accept or decline it.

See how disputing a chargeback works in practice. Learn how you can defend a chargeback in the Adyen platform:

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Fine-tune your risk management

Learn how to maintain a balance between blocking fraudsters and letting legitimate customers pay unhindered.

Read our guide to risk management

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