Chargeback vs. RefundHow to Distinguish Payment Reversal Sources & Prevent Each From Happening

October 9, 2023 | 11 min read

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Chargeback vs. Refund

In a Nutshell

Are chargebacks and refunds the same thing? Not at all. This article will explain why one does more harm than the other, and also talk about how you can insulate your business against both threat sources.

How to Tell a Chargeback vs. Refund — What’s the Difference & How Do You Prevent Both?

At first glance, chargebacks and refunds might seem like two sides of the same coin. Both refunds and chargebacks are typically triggered by the cardholder. And, in both cases, the merchant sees a reversal of funds. That means your bottom line takes a hit, whether it's a direct refund or a chargeback. 

Dig a little deeper, though, and you'll find that the implications for businesses differ significantly. For instance, chargebacks tend to have steeper repercussions. Over time, frequent chargebacks can even jeopardize one’s ability to process credit card transactions. So, while neither scenario is particularly cheerful, chargebacks pack a harder punch in the long run for a business.

Do you fully grasp the nuances between them? More importantly, are your customers aware of these differences?

What is a Chargeback vs. Refund?

Let’s start by very quickly outlining each of these processes.

A customer-initiated refund involves a store returning money for an item a customer has purchased. This might happen because the product was faulty, didn't align with its description, or maybe the customer simply had a change of heart.

Depending on their guidelines, customers could receive a direct refund, store credit, or even exchange the product. To uphold trust and ensure a good customer experience, retailers should establish clear policies and timeframes in which returns are allowed.

Learn more about refunds

A chargeback happens when a cardholder's bank reverses a credit card transaction, This is usually done after the cardholder contacts the bank to dispute the charge.

The bank pulls the funds from the merchant's account and gives them back to the customer. It's a system set up to protect customers from things like unauthorized charges or if they're unhappy with a product or service. For merchants, chargebacks can be a big headache; they lose the sale, and also get hit with extra fees.

Learn more about chargebacks

Chargeback vs. Refund: How Do They Differ?

Both refunds and chargebacks are processes aimed at giving the customer their money back. As we implied above, though, the two processes have different routes and effects.

A refund is pretty direct. The merchant decides to return the customer's money in accordance with their own predetermined return policy. It's a clear-cut process in which the customer and merchant are able to sort things out between themselves; no involvement is needed from other parties.

Chargebacks, however, are a bit more complicated. If a customer spots a problem with their credit card statement, they'll contact their bank instead of the merchant. The bank then steps in, taking the money from the merchant's account.

Refunds are just part of doing business; even if a merchant provides stellar services, some occasional refund requests are inevitable. With a chargeback, though, the merchant loses sales revenue and any merchandise shipped, then gets hit with an added chargeback fee. They may even take a hit to their standing with credit card companies.

Chargeback vs. Refund

Refund requests are quicker, cheaper, and put the merchant in the driver's seat. Handling refunds directly means merchants can skip the hassle and costs tied to chargebacks like dealing with dispute notifications and gathering evidence. Plus, with refunds, merchants can set their own return policies, and offer other solutions like store credits or replacement items. 

Chargebacks come with a very thick rulebook, over which merchants have no control. A chargeback leaves the merchant covering the cost of the item, any shipping or handling, and those pesky chargeback fees. Plus, while handling a refund request well can actually boost customer loyalty and drive new sales, there’s no way to turn a chargeback into a positive experience.

Why a Customer May Choose a Chargeback Over a Refund

Diving deeper into the chargeback vs. refund conundrum, there are a few reasons why a customer might lean towards a chargeback.

Chargeback vs. Refund

Poor Prior Experience

Let’s say a buyer has had slow (or no) response from a merchant in the past following a refund request. The buyer might feel that going straight to their card issuer will get results quicker.
Chargeback vs. Refund

Lack of Trust

Then there's trust; if a customer feels a business isn't playing fair, they might see a chargeback as a safer bet. After all, the card issuer is a big bank, and there's a certain confidence that comes with that.
Chargeback vs. Refund

Lack of Knowledge

Some cardholders might just not know the difference between refunds and chargebacks. Or, they may think that “chargeback” is just a fancier term for a refund. They might not realize the hassle and costs it can trigger for merchants.
Chargeback vs. Refund

First-Party Fraud

First-party fraud, also called friendly fraud, happens when a customer contacts their card issuer to dispute the charge without having a valid reason to do so. They might insist they never got that book or that the gadget wasn't quite up to snuff, even if it was delivered as described.
Refunds aren’t ideal... but they’re much better than chargebacks.REQUEST A DEMO

That last point, in particular, creates a double dilemma for merchants. Not only do they part with the product, but the payment they were expecting gets reversed. If this becomes a recurring issue, there's the looming risk of higher processing fees, and even a potential freeze on their payment accounts.

But the story doesn't end with just financial hiccups. Friendly fraud can also seriously impact a merchant's reputation. Sorting out these situations means investing time and resources, making it crucial for merchants to stay alert and ensure transparent communication with their customers.

What is a Double Refund?

Getting hit with a chargeback should be bad enough. However, that loss can be compounded by turning into a so-called “double refund.”

Where a double refund comes into play is if, during the time the customer is disputing the charge with the card issuer, they also approach the merchant directly for a refund. The merchant, aiming to offer good customer service, might process the refund, unaware that the card issuer is simultaneously initiating a chargeback due to the customer's dispute.

It could be that the consumer contacts the merchant for a refund, but the funds don’t show in the customer’s account when expected. So, the customer files a chargeback, assuming the merchant ignored or denied the refund request. Or, maybe the customer contacts the bank and initiates a dispute, then contacts the merchant and requests a refund. 

In either case, the result is that the merchant effectively refunds the amount twice. Once when they process the direct refund, and again when the chargeback from the card issuer comes through. This overlap can pose significant financial challenges for merchants. The threat that double refunds pose emphasizes the need for effective communication and robust transaction tracking.

Learn more about double refunds

10 Tips to Prevent Refunds & Chargebacks

Merchants should quickly process refunds and clearly communicate to customers the expected timeframe for the refund to reflect in their accounts. This is crucial to mitigate the risk of double refunds, and friendly fraud chargebacks.

That said, a merchant’s best bet is generally to take proactive steps that work to prevent payment reversals — in all their forms — before they happen. Don’t think of it as chargeback vs. refund prevention; it’s chargeback and refund prevention.

Here are some ideas that sellers should consider:

#1 Quality Control

Source products from reliable suppliers. Authenticate all designer or luxury goods, in particular, before making them available for sale. These are hot targets for knock-off goods that suppliers might pass off as legitimate.

#2 Accurate Product Descriptions

Give customers as much detail about the products as possible without exaggerating features or benefits. Details like size, color, dimensions, etc. — really spell out the details here.

#3 High-Quality Images

Small, pixelated product images won’t cut it. Merchants should give customers multiple clear, high-definition pictures (and video, if possible) to show the item from different angles.

#4 In-Depth FAQs

Don’t wait for customers to ask questions. Create a detailed section for “frequently asked questions”; provide specific answers on products and policies that are likely to come up repeatedly.

#5 Rapid Response

One-third of customers expect a response to email or social media inquiries within one hour. To meet that high standard, merchants should consider offering round-the-clock live service across all channels.

#6 Proper Handling

Package all items carefully, and review orders before they go out to ensure they are delivered to the correct destination. Slight errors in logistics can mean lost or damaged goods.

#7 Easy Cancellations

If you do business on a recurring billing or a subscription model, make it as easy as possible for customers to cancel service. Cancellations aren’t ideal, but they’re better than chargebacks.

#8 Up-Front Information

Payment, shipping, and returns policies should be clearly stated in simple language and easily located on the merchant’s website. Making buyers go hunt for policies makes calling the bank a more enticing option.

#9 Exception Indicators

If the standard rules don’t apply (such as with “final sale” items), ask buyers to confirm they know these exceptions before purchasing. They shouldn’t be caught off-guard when trying to return goods.

#10 Chargeback Alerts

Deploying chargeback alerts can drastically reduce exposure to risk by alerting the merchant about a pending chargeback before it’s filed. 

There are other examples and best practices to consider, too. In fact, we’ve put together a guide with dozens more best practices to prevent chargebacks and refund requests. Click below to download your free copy:


Here’s the bottom line: merchants should make everything — especially return rules— obvious and easy from the customer’s perspective.

As a bonus tip: when merchants get return requests, they should think of ways to turn them into opportunities. Offering a 10-20% bonus on merchandise returns if customers will take store credit instead of cash, for example. This lets the merchant recover the sale and build positive customer relationships, all with no extra effort.

Consider Expert Help

When it comes to the question of chargebacks vs. refunds, there’s really no question about which is more harmful. Issuing a refund will almost always be faster, easier, and less costly than dealing with a chargeback. If chargebacks are still a problem, though, you may want to consider professional help.

Chargebacks911® offers end-to-end solutions for dealing with post-transactional fraud. We can help you create a chargeback management strategy that’s customized to your business to let you offload chargeback management and focus your attention on growing your business. Contact us today to get started.


What are the cons of chargeback?

Chargebacks can hurt merchants through lost revenue, added fees, and potential damage to their payment processing reputation. For consumers, chargebacks may lead to blocked accounts or flagged purchasing behavior, and can sometimes complicate relationships with merchants. Both parties can also face extended resolution times and increased transaction complexities.

Do customers usually win chargebacks?

Customers often have the upper hand in chargeback disputes due to credit card companies' inclination to protect cardholders. However, if merchants provide compelling evidence that a transaction was legitimate, they can successfully contest the chargeback. Effective communication and thorough documentation are key for merchants to win these disputes.

Who loses money in a chargeback?

In a chargeback, the merchant loses the funds from the disputed transaction. Additionally, they often incur chargeback fees imposed by their payment processor.

What evidence do I need for a chargeback?

To win a chargeback, a merchant typically needs to provide transaction records, proof of product delivery or service fulfillment, and any communication between the merchant and the customer. This evidence should clearly demonstrate that the transaction was valid, authorized, and met all the agreed-upon terms. Prompt and thorough documentation is crucial in making a strong case.

Can a chargeback get you in trouble?

Yes, a chargeback can get a customer into trouble. If a customer frequently initiates unjustified chargebacks, they might be flagged by their card issuer, leading to account limitations or closures. Additionally, merchants might blacklist customers deemed problematic, preventing future purchases.

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