Chargebacks are a costly and unfortunate fact of life for many small businesses that accept credit cards. However, there are ways you can protect yourself against unfair chargebacks.

Credit card chargebacks happen when customers contact their credit card issuers to dispute charges. If an issuer deems a dispute valid, your merchant account is debited for a credit card charge that had previously cleared — and you’re out the money, plus a chargeback fee from the processor that may range from $15 to $100.

Disputes may be considered valid for a number of reasons. In some cases, the purchase was made fraudulently by a third party, using the customer’s identity. Customers also may dispute charges if they:

  • Didn’t receive an item they ordered.
  • Feel that a product or service was substandard or not what it was represented to be.
  • Were incorrectly billed.
  • Don’t recognize the charge on their credit card statement.

With more business being done online and card issuers eager to keep their cardholders happy, chargebacks are on the rise, says Gary T. Cardone, president and CEO Global Risk Technologies, the Clearwater, Florida, company that owns Chargebacks911, a company that helps merchants contest chargebacks. While he says the credit card industry has done a good job of reducing merchant chargeback exposure due to stolen credit cards and identity theft, chargebacks are still an issue for most businesses that accept credit cards.

Minimizing them requires vigilance. “It’s something you have to stay proactive on,” says Rick Lynch, senior vice president of business development with Verifi Inc., a Los Angeles provider of global electronic payment and risk management solutions for online merchants.

Lynch suggests reviewing the status of your chargebacks and your approach to preventing them at least every six to 12 months. For larger merchants, it may make sense to conduct the review quarterly.

This list of eight ways to reduce the risk of chargebacks can help guide the process.

1. Follow processor protocol. Every credit card processor has its own protocol when it comes to accepting credit cards, says Margo Lamb, a Paso Robles, California, small-business credit card consultant. For card-present purchases, in which the card is swiped in person, be sure to check the expiration date and enter the security code on the front or back of the card.

Your credit card processor may need to specifically give you permission to process card-not-present purchases transactions, such as those made online or over the phone, Lamb says. To be approved, you may have to capture additional information such as the customer’s IP address, digital signature or social media profiles. Some processors may want additional identity confirmation through services like Verified by Visa or MasterCard SecureCode, which require customers who opt in to enter an extra password to authorize credit or debit card payments online. They may also require you to get proof of delivery when you ship items.

2. Use a clear payment descriptor. Verifi’s Lynch says that the majority of disputes his firm handles have to do with unclear payment descriptors. Your payment descriptor is the merchant name and other identifying details that appear on the customer’s credit card statement when they make a purchase from you. If you list a different name than what the customer might recognize — a parent company name instead of your store’s specific brand name, for example — the customer may not recall the purchase, Lynch says. The solution is to be sure your descriptor reflects what the consumer will recognize.
3. Get it in writing. Entrepreneur Glenn David has never lost a chargeback request with his Skokie, Illinois, party services company, Glenn David Productions. He says one of the most important things he’s done to protect himself is to require customers to sign a contract that spells out the specific services his company will provide. He gives them lots of options — they can return the signed contract via fax or email, or sign it electronically online or with a fingerprint via a smartphone application. The key is to get the customer’s authorization in writing.

“The card isn’t present, but the contract says that so-and-so authorizes us to bill their card in this amount,” David says.

“Once we had to address a dispute with American Express, who defends their customers like no one else. We submitted the contract and, within 24 hours, they found in our favor.”

4. Deal with customer service issues promptly. Your credit card processor will likely offer chargeback notifications so you can find out quickly if a customer is disputing a charge. Lynch says it’s a good idea to take advantage of those notifications so you can address chargebacks promptly. David tries to head off chargebacks with good customer service. If a customer expresses dissatisfaction, he gets in touch with them quickly to try to solve the issue, he says.

5. Learn to spot warning signs of fraud. In 2012, New York City e-cigarette retailer Bedford Slims Vapourette Company had been in business for just over a year when owner Jesse Gaddis received his first chargeback for $244.68. Someone had used a stolen credit card to purchase goods and the rightful owner disputed the charge.

Gaddis was so furious that he went to his local police precinct, but was told they couldn’t help with Internet fraud. “It was one of those things where we just had to suck it up,” he says.

Since then, Gaddis has developed a “chargeback protocol,” that helps him detect signs of fraud. The company moved its shopping cart functions and payment gateway — which transfers information to the payment processor — to more secure systems.

He now pays attention to alerts that inform the Bedford Slims team if there are any suspicious details, such as if the credit card security code isn’t correct or if the billing and shipping addresses don’t match. That way, Gaddis and his team can make inquiries to ensure that the customer is legitimate. He says he has often been able to confirm or deny sales by making a phone call to the customer or confirming information on a Facebook or LinkedIn account.

6. Train employees. Verifi’s Lynch says it’s a good idea to train employees thoroughly in how to deal with both card-present and card-not-present transactions. Good training includes teaching them fraud and chargeback prevention techniques, such as looking for suspicious transactions, verifying signatures in card-present transactions, and obtaining signatures on contracts and sales orders when appropriate.

7. Keep good records. Cardone recommends that at a minimum, you keep accurate records of customers’ credit card transaction dates, amounts and authorization information, in case you need them to fight a chargeback. If you have signed documentation such as receipts or contracts, that helps, too. There’s not much you can do if you have been the victim of a fraudulent purchase, but this paperwork can help you win a dispute against a customer who is unfairly trying to take advantage of the chargeback system or who may have simply forgotten the purchase.

8. Fight back when it makes sense. Each chargeback could cost you an additional fee. Plus, if you have a history of chargebacks, it could hurt your relationship with your merchant account provider. You may not choose to devote the time and resources to fighting every chargeback, but if you think you could win a case, it may be worth pursuing. If it’s too much to do on your own, consider hiring a chargeback management firm to help you, but weigh the cost of these firms against what you could reasonably do on your own.