Travelers are turning to credit-card disputes when other routes to a refund have failed

Could disputing a credit-card charge solve your next travel problem?

For better or worse, travelers are turning to a last-ditch tactic to resolve their disagreements with airlines, car-rental companies or hotels: instigating credit-card disputes.

Chargebacks are on the rise in travel. A chargeback voids a credit-card transaction by withdrawing funds that were previously deposited into a merchant’s bank account and applying credit back to your card. And even though experts caution against using this tack because you don’t enjoy a vacation or disagree with an unfair policy, the odds are in your favor.

Consider what happened to Edward Margolis, a Indianapolis financial consultant who called off his plans to fly from Tel Aviv to Las Vegas earlier this year. An airline agent assured him that since he’d canceled his ticket within 24 hours he would “very likely” receive a refund, he says.

When he didn’t, Margolis contacted me and called his credit-card company to reverse the payment. Under the Fair Credit Billing Act, you can dispute a charge for goods and services you didn’t accept or that weren’t delivered as agreed upon. If your bank sides with you, the money is almost instantly refunded.

The travel industry’s chargeback rate is more than twice the average of other industries, according to a working paper published earlier this year by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. Travel also has the highest-value disputes — an average of about $18. Disputes in the next-highest category, department stores, average roughly $8.

Your chances of succeeding in a travel-related dispute are better than average. The industry-wide “win” rate for merchants is only about 41 percent, according to the latest CyberSource benchmarking report. But since the top dispute category in travel is “card not present” — which means you didn’t swipe your credit card but made a charge by phone or online — your odds may be even better. Banks tend to favor customers in a disagreement when a card isn’t physically present.

“High levels of fraud within travel can be found especially online,” says Nick Clements, a banker-turned-consumer advocate and founder of the money management website MagnifyMoney.com. Websites offering hotel deals, vacation packages and cruise tours can be dispute free-for-alls.

Having a strong case helps, of course. When Seth Elsen checked out of a La Quinta Inn and Suites, he found a $250 “cleaning” charge on his bill.

“I talked with an assistant manager and was told that it was a smoking charge,” says Elsen, a program manager for a Seattle nonprofit organization.

Elsen doesn’t smoke, but the negotiations to remove the fee quickly stalled. He turned to me for help and simultaneously asked his credit-card company to reverse the charges. After I spoke with the hotel, it agreed not to fight the dispute and he received a $250 refund.

In Margolis’s case, I contacted American Airlines to ask about his complaint, but his refund was already in progress.

Chargebacks are generally thought of as a last resort. There’s a reason for that, says Monica Eaton-Cardone, the co-founder of eConsumerServices, a company dedicated to resolving transaction disputes between merchants and cardholders.

“Filing a chargeback without proper justification is a practice known within the industry as ‘friendly fraud,’ ” she says. “This refers to the fact that the sale appears valid at first, but then the merchant is hit by a dispute much later.”

For example, if you didn’t like a cruise and decided to simply dispute the charge on your card after your vacation, it could cost you. Your bank could cancel your credit card or bank account if it determines that you have committed friendly fraud. And the company could take action. Car-rental companies have a well-deserved reputation for blacklisting customers who win credit-card disputes against them, adding them to their “do not rent” list.

And timing is important. You don’t want to file a dispute too early because it could disrupt your trip, says Matthew Coan, who runs the credit-card-comparison website Casavvy.com.

“Disputing the charge before your trip is over could lead to whatever legs of the trip you have left to be canceled by the merchant, leaving you stranded,” he says. But wait longer than 60 days after the charge, and the law no longer protects you. Your bank may still review a chargeback, but it isn’t legally obligated to help.

The actual process is shrouded in mystery. I asked Brian Penny, a former Bank of America operations-manager-turned-whistleblower, to explain how disputes work. He said chargebacks at his bank were handled by a call center within an electronic claims unit. Phoning the bank with a dispute connected you to a representative, who asked a scripted set of questions.

“Our first step was to advise customers to attempt a resolution with the merchant,” he says. If a traveler could show proof that they tried but failed to fix the problem, a dedicated resolution team would contact the merchant and request a response. The entire process took between six and eight weeks. In the meantime, the customer would receive a temporary credit.

If the bank decided in a customer’s favor, it filed a claim with Visa or MasterCard to recover the funds, and the credit would be permanent. But how does a bank actually decide who wins? No one except the banks knows.

Chargebacks can work. I’ve lost count of the number of times a traveler has emailed me for help and then sent a “never mind” message after initiating a chargeback. The more interesting question is: When do they not work?

Although many chargebacks are legitimate — the business didn’t deliver the service it promised — not all of them are. Increasingly, credit-card holders are turning to the dispute to retaliate against what they see as a company’s unfair policies, says John Monarch, chief executive of Direct Outbound, a company that offers chargeback and call-center services to businesses.

“More customers are disputing airline charges specifically, seeing it as a sort of check or balance on the restrictions of nonrefundable tickets,” Monarch says. He points to blog posts on travel hack sites that explain how to increase your likelihood of winning a dispute, even when a ticket-refund policy is clearly spelled out and agreed to by the customer.

Monarch and others frown upon bad-faith chargebacks, noting that over the long term, they increase the cost of processing credit cards. Instead, they recommend only contesting charges when you’re at a genuine impasse with your travel company, and when the usual customer-service channels have been exhausted.

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