10 Tips for Merchants to Prevent ACH Disputes
A lot of us engage with the ACH system without even being aware of it.
The Automated Clearing House (ACH) system is a vital component of the financial framework in the United States, playing an essential role in enabling electronic funds transfers between banks and their customers. The most typical applications of ACH transfers include receiving paychecks through direct deposit and settling bills by giving bank account details to the service provider. The system acts as the financial foundation for peer-to-peer payment apps like Venmo and Cash App.
ACH transfers provide a speedy means of receiving our paychecks via direct deposit and settling bills by sharing our bank account information. But, while ACH is an amazing service, occasional issues can arise.
For example, consider a scenario where a customer's payment is returned. How is the merchant alerted to the problem, and how do they determine the cause of it? Let's explore this further.
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What is an ACH Dispute?
- ACH Dispute
An ACH (Automated Clearing House) payment dispute is a situation in which one party involved in an ACH transaction raises a concern or disagreement over the legitimacy, accuracy, or authorization of the transaction.
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ACH disputes pertain to various parties involved in an ACH transaction, which is an electronic funds transfer facilitated through the Automated Clearing House (ACH) network in the United States. Key stakeholders include bank customers, banks, and merchants.
Essentially, if an ACH transfer is initiated without a buyer's consent, they (or the bank) may submit a Written Statement of Unauthorized Debit (WSUD) to initiate an ACH dispute. This will allow them to claw back the funds lost.
The National Automated Clearing House Association (NACHA) governs the ACH network and establishes the Operating Rules and Guidelines that banks must follow when handling ACH transactions and disputes.
Valid Consumer Reasons for an ACH Dispute
Valid reasons customers can cite for initiating an ACH dispute generally fall under specific categories defined by NACHA rules and guidelines.
Some of the most commonly used valid reasons for disputes include:
It’s very important for both customers and merchants to understand the difference between valid and invalid reasons for filing ACH disputes. On that note, let’s take a look at a few of the invalid reasons to file.
Invalid Consumer Reasons for an ACH Dispute
Misusing the ACH dispute process is not only wrong on a technical level. It can lead to penalties and increased fees, so there is actually something at stake here for banks and their customers.
Invalid reasons for an ACH dispute are those that do not meet the criteria established by NACHA for legitimate disputes. For instance, invalid ACH dispute reasons include:
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As a last note, there may be other circumstances that would invalidate a customer’s ACH dispute claim. For example, if a customer has used a product or service, then files a dispute claiming it was defective without first attempting to return the product, this would be considered invalid.
Now that we have a better understanding of which ACH transactions qualify for disputes and which do not, let’s go over the various steps involved in the process.
The ACH Dispute Process
When initiating an ACH dispute, the buyer must provide as much information and supporting documentation as possible to help the bank investigate the issue. So, assuming the situation aligns with any of the reasons listed above, the account holder (or a representative from their bank) may proceed with the dispute.
Note that timeframes and specific procedures for ACH payment disputes may vary depending on the banks involved. The nature of the dispute and the applicable rules and regulations may also be factors.
The ACH dispute process typically involves the following steps:
What is an ACH Return?
If an ACH transaction fails to process, one of the banks involved in the process might receive an ACH return. This serves as a notification to the institution that the funds could not be collected from, or deposited into, the relevant account.
In such cases, an ACH return acts as a message, usually sent by the Receiving Depository Financial Institution (RDFI), informing the Originating Depository Financial Institution (ODFI) that the ACH Network failed to collect or deposit funds into the receiver's account. An ACH return can be thought of as the electronic equivalent of a bounced check.
The party responsible for the unsuccessful ACH transaction will be charged an ACH return fee, which typically ranges between $2-5 per instance. For example, a "lack of authorization" return often results in a fee for the RDFI, whereas returns due to insufficient funds are likely to incur a fee for the customer's account.
If an ACH payment gets rejected, it is generally returned within two business days. ACH returns can occasionally arise from unauthorized debits or authorized debits that have been subsequently revoked by the customer. In both cases, a written statement is necessary, and the processing of these returns can take up to 60 calendar days.
ACH Returns & Disputes vs. Chargebacks: What’s the Difference?
Some people mistakenly conflate ACH returns with chargebacks, even referring to them as "ACH chargebacks." However, ACH returns and chargebacks are two distinctly different concepts.
Cardholders and financial institutions are highly vigilant about the risks associated with card fraud. Consequently, cardholders can dispute credit card charges, often initiating chargebacks based solely on their word. Funds can then be withdrawn from the merchant's account without notice, even months after the transaction occurred.
Merchants do have a formal process available to contest chargebacks, and the card network may even be brought in to make a final decision. However, the outcome of this process isn’t a guaranteed win.
In contrast, ACH transactions are cleared between banks automatically, even before the customer's bank confirms the account balance. If an issue arises, the amount must be refunded within two days. Sometimes, the ACH operator may hold the funds for 3-5 days, ensuring everything is in order before releasing the funds to the recipient.
With ACH returns, there is nothing to “charge back.” This is a straightforward return, typically without direct involvement from the customer or the merchant.
Responding to Active ACH Disputes
When an ACH dispute is filed against a company, time is generally of the essence. Merchants can typically respond to ACH disputes through their financial institution or bank. But, to do so effectively, they must follow these steps:
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While all of this is important advice, keep in mind that not every ACH dispute can be avoided.
If ACH transfers are a main means of doing business, it’s fair to expect the occasional friction here and there. However, that isn’t to say that businesses can’t benefit from a few best practices, as we’ll see below.
8 Tips to Prevent ACH Disputes
Merchants should handle ACH disputes proactively and efficiently to maintain good customer relationships and minimize potential financial losses. Here are a few steps merchants should follow when dealing with ACH disputes:
#1 | Establish Clear Policies and Procedures
Merchants should have well-defined policies and procedures in place for handling ACH disputes. This includes training staff, documenting processes, and ensuring that all team members are aware of their responsibilities.
#2 | Comply with NACHA Rules
Merchants should be familiar with the NACHA Operating Rules and Guidelines (linked above) and ensure compliance with these rules in their ACH transaction processes. This will help minimize potential issues and disputes.
#3 | Monitor Transactions
Regularly review and monitor ACH transactions for potential issues, such as duplicate transactions or incorrect amounts. Identifying and resolving these issues proactively can help reduce the likelihood of disputes.
#4 | Maintain Accurate Records
Keep detailed and accurate records of all ACH transactions, including customer authorizations, invoices, receipts, and communication logs. These records will be crucial in the event of a dispute.
#5 | Communicate Promptly
If a bank contacts the merchant regarding a dispute, respond quickly and provide any necessary information or documentation to support the investigation. Maintaining open and transparent communication can help resolve disputes more efficiently.
#6 | Maintain Good Customer Service
Address customer concerns promptly and professionally, and ensure that they are aware of the steps taken to resolve the dispute. A positive customer service experience can help maintain good relationships with customers and reduce the likelihood of future disputes.
#7 | Remember to Follow Up
There’s more to customer service than providing “service with a smile.” No matter how large or small an average transaction might be, it’s always a great rule of thumb to check back with the customer after payment is rendered and items have been delivered.
#8 | Learn From Disputes
Analyze resolved disputes to identify trends, common issues, or areas for improvement in the ACH transaction process. Implement changes to prevent similar disputes in the future.
Taking a Broader Approach to Fraud & Disputes
Deploying an advanced fraud detection strategy can help decrease the number of unauthorized transactions received and, by extension, decrease the overall number of ACH disputes.
But… what about disputes and other issues that can’t be prevented?
Like we mentioned before, ACH disputes and chargebacks aren’t the same thing. However, treating the underlying issues that lead to ACH disputes can also help limit risk, decrease fees, and lower chargeback ratios.
Remember: up to 60% of all chargebacks are caused by friendly fraud, a post-transactional threat that gets worse every year. In order to fight back effectively, a multi-layered chargeback management strategy is best.
Can you dispute an ACH transaction?
Yes. If an ACH transfer is initiated without a buyer's consent, they (or their bank) can submit a Written Statement of Unauthorized Debit (WSUD) to initiate an ACH dispute.
Can ACH funds be reversed?
If an ACH transaction fails to process, one of the banks involved in the process may receive an ACH return. This is a way of informing the institution that the amount in question either could not be collected from, or deposited into, the appropriate account.
How long does it take to reverse an ACH payment?
When an ACH payment is rejected, it is typically returned within 2 business days. Occasionally, ACH returns may be the result of unauthorized debits or previously authorized debits that the customer has since revoked. In either situation, a written statement is required, and processing these returns could take as long as 60 calendar days.
What happens when an ACH payment is reversed?
The party responsible for a failed ACH transaction will get hit with an ACH return fee, which typically ranges from $2-5 per occurrence. A “lack of authorization” return, for example, will often result in a fee for the RDFI. Returns that stem from insufficient funds, however, will likely mean a fee charged to the customer’s account.