How Banks Conduct Transaction Fraud Investigations
Merchants and consumers are at odds with each other when payment disputes occur, but there is one thing they can agree on: the banks’ process for investigating fraud claims can be mystifying and frustrating. Consumers wonder why it takes so long for banks to return their money when they’re the victims of obvious crime.
Merchants wonder if banks vet dubious fraud claims at all. Of course, fraud is a serious problem for banks too, and there are rules they must follow when it comes to handling unauthorized transactions. When a bank receives a claim of payment card fraud, what do they really do to investigate it?
One problem is that banks, consumers, and merchants don’t always speak the same language when it comes to fraud. For consumers, fraud can be a catch-all term that refers to a wide range of complaints or issues they may have with transactions, many of which might not fall under the legal definition of fraud. In the realm of merchant chargebacks, we talk about “true fraud” and “friendly fraud,” two very different things that aren’t as closely related as their descriptors might suggest.
Untangling the many varieties of fraud can get complicated, especially when merchants are trying to make sense of their chargeback data for analytic purposes. It can be helpful to know how fraud claims are handled on the bank’s end, and what to expect in terms of timelines and actions they are likely to take.
What Types of Fraud Are We Talking About Here?
Before we go further, let’s review some fraud terminology:
- True fraud is when a fraudster steals a cardholder’s payment card credentials and uses it to make a purchase without their knowledge or permission.
- Friendly fraud, also known as chargeback fraud or credit card dispute fraud, is when a cardholder disputes a transaction and receives a chargeback based on false claims.
- Family fraud is when someone known to the cardholder uses their card without permission, and the cardholder disputes the charge as an unauthorized transaction.
- A dispute is the term for when a cardholder asks their bank for a chargeback on a transaction that they did authorize, Disputes are not to be granted for any type of consumer complaint, but only for very specific cases where the merchant has made a billing error or failed to uphold their terms of purchase with the cardholder.
Note that in the case of true fraud, the cardholder is the victim, whereas in the case of friendly and family fraud, the cardholder is actually defrauding the merchant.
What Happens When a Bank Gets a Fraud Claim?
The first thing the bank will do is try to substantiate that fraud has actually occurred. They will ask the cardholder bringing the fraud claim to provide additional details or documentation about the transaction.
For cardholders who really have been victimized by fraudsters, this can feel like a big ask. It’s often the case that after a cardholder first notices fraud on their account, they discover that it has been going on for quite some time—small card testing purchases, easy to overlook, often accumulate before the fraudster goes for a big payout. Researching and documenting all of these transactions to satisfy the bank can be a lot of work, but it’s worth it—the Fair Credit Billing Act caps consumer fraud liability at $50.
Per the Electronic Fund Transfer Act, cardholders are required to notify banks about fraudulent charges within 60 days of the transaction—any later and the bank is not obligated to respond.
Once notified, the bank has 10 business days to investigate the claim and reach a decision. If they find that fraud did indeed occur, they are obligated to refund the cardholder.
If the bank needs more time to investigate, they can take up to 45 days, but they must at least temporarily return the funds to the cardholder’s account by the 10-day deadline. Many banks streamline this process by granting a provisional credit as soon as a dispute is filed.
What Does the Bank’s Investigation Entail?
Bank investigators will usually start with the transaction data and look for likely indicators of fraud. Timestamps, geolocation, IP addresses, and other elements can be used to prove whether or not the cardholder was involved in the transaction.
When the cardholder is claiming that the merchant defrauded them in some way, the bank may put out an inquiry for more information.
Merchants should always be on the lookout for these; any inquiry that can be adequately addressed is a chargeback prevented.
Ideally, bank investigators will uncover friendly fraud when it occurs, as they will be trained to identify common scenarios (such as when the free trial period ending and regular billing kicks in, the in-app purchases made by the unsupervised child, and so on). As merchants know, this doesn’t always happen. Friendly fraud chargebacks are a huge problem for merchants, who have to take it upon themselves to provide the evidence that refutes these claims.
Banks may choose to notify law enforcement, such as the FBI, when they feel a fraud case warrants it.
Several different laws and regulations define the chargeback process, and these laws were written to address various concerns over the course of decades—they don’t really add up to a cohesive, internally consistent whole that treats every stakeholder equally.
With merchants carrying the ultimate liability for the cost of chargebacks, banks aren’t really incentivized to investigate fraud in great depth or push back too hard against their customers’ claims. This might not be fair, but it clearly highlights how important it is for merchants to take charge of their own defense when it comes to fraud and chargebacks.
Fighting chargebacks is a battle with two fronts. Not only do merchants have to preemptively defend themselves and their customers against true fraud, they must also fight friendly fraud chargebacks after they’ve been filed by engaging in the representment process and supplying the banks with the evidence that shows that they were wrong to take their customer’s claims at face value.