Tips to help consumers with disputes on credit card charges

•File the dispute carefully. Banks classify card holders' disputes into nearly two dozen categories, such as "merchandise not received" or "canceled recurring transaction." But generally, if filed as an "unauthorized transaction" — as long as it is unauthorized — you'll have more protection.

By law, liability for unauthorized credit card use is limited to $50, but most banks don't hold the card holder responsible for even that amount. Unlike billing-error disputes, which generally must be filed in writing, unauthorized transactions can be reported over the phone. And, there's no requirement to do so within 60 days.

In Emily Sachs Wong's case, reporting a charge as unauthorized may have made a difference in getting her money back.

Wong, a real estate agent in Chicago, says she filed a dispute when she couldn't get an explanation from her interior designer about credit card charges. The bank refunded her money.

But Gaynor, who worked with the same interior designer, disputed his charges as a billing error, rather than an unauthorized transaction. He didn't get his money back.

After losing the dispute, Gaynor agreed to accept $35,000 in furnishings he had originally rejected because they were delivered late. He did so, he says, even though the furnishings have "little value" now that he and his wife have replaced them. He's still out about $46,000.

Sarah Boardman, the interior designer, says the Gaynors had already received some furniture before they filed the dispute. They kept that. The rest of it, she says, had been shipped.

In Wong's case, Boardman says, the dispute cost her $12,000. Boardman believes the disputed charge was for two chandeliers. One, she says, had already been sent to Wong, and the other was waiting to be shipped.

The disputes have taken a toll on her finances, Boardman adds, because credit card companies pulled the disputed amounts out of her account while they were investigating. This left her unable to fulfill other orders and brought her close to financial ruin, she notes.

Disputes "should be resolved in 30 days, not this dragged-out process," Boardman says.

•Be prepared to arbitrate. Most disputes are settled between the merchant and the consumer. But your credit card issuer could also try to resolve it with the merchant's bank. If that doesn't work, the final step often is arbitration, where the issue is decided by Visa or MasterCard.

It's rare for cases to go to arbitration: At Visa, only one-tenth of 1% of disputes are decided in arbitration, spokeswoman Randa Ghnaim says.

Credit card disputes can last up to 270 days, including the arbitration process, although 99% of card disputes are settled much sooner, says Monteiro of MasterCard.

•File a complaint elsewhere. If you feel that your dispute hasn't been fairly decided, file a complaint with your state attorney general, the Better Business Bureau or a consumer advocacy group. Filing a lawsuit is also an option.

Josh Merriman, 59, got his money back days after complaining to his state attorney general about a $298 charge to his credit card.

Merriman of Shrewsbury, Mass., had signed up for a prepaid hotel deal. But when he checked with the hotel, he learned the stay would cost more than double what he was quoted.

When he couldn't resolve the issue with the merchant, he filed a dispute with American Express. He was denied a refund. That's when he called the attorney general's office. The regulator called the merchant, who promptly refunded Merriman's money.

American Express spokeswoman Marina Hoffmann declined to comment on the consumer's situation but says that the bank is "committed to resolving all inquiries in a prompt manner" for everyone.

Merriman is glad he sought help elsewhere. "It's amazing," he says, "what a call from the attorney general's office can do."

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