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Billed for Merchandise You Never Received

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You found the perfect set of bed linens and matching curtains online. You place your order and charge it to your credit card. The site says your order should arrive in two weeks. Two weeks go by, then three and four, and still no bedding or curtains. But your credit card bill has a charge from the seller.

So what do you do when you get a credit card bill but no merchandise? Get frustrated, to be sure. But the error can be corrected. Two federal laws — the Mail, Internet or Telephone Order Merchandise Rule and the Fair Credit Billing Act — offer protections and procedures so you don’t have to pay for merchandise you ordered but never got. But first things first: Contact the seller to try to resolve the problem and get a refund. Most businesses want to keep you happy so you’ll keep coming back.

Disputing a Credit Card Billing Error

Many credit card issuers have policies against sellers charging a credit card account before shipment. If you think a seller charged your account too soon, report it to the credit card issuer. Otherwise, the issuer has no way to know the seller isn’t following its policies.

To dispute the billing error with your credit card issuer, you must:

  • write to the credit card issuer at the address given for “billing inquiries,” not the address for sending your payments, and include your name, address, account number, and a description of the billing error. Use our sample letter.
  • send your letter so that it reaches the credit card issuer within 60 days after the first bill with the error was mailed to you. It’s a good idea to send your letter by certified mail; ask for a return receipt so you have proof of what the credit card issuer received. Include copies (not originals) of sales slips or other documents that support your position. Keep a copy of your dispute letter.

The credit card issuer must acknowledge your complaint, in writing, within 30 days after receiving it, unless the problem has been resolved. The issuer must resolve the dispute within two billing cycles (but not more than 90 days) after getting your letter.

You may withhold payment on the disputed amount (and related charges) during the investigation. You must pay any part of the bill not in question, including finance charges on the undisputed amount.

The credit card issuer may not take any legal or other action to collect the disputed amount and related charges (including finance charges) during the investigation. While your account can’t be closed or restricted, the disputed amount can be applied against your credit limit.

But what if… You placed an order with a catalog company and they charged your credit card immediately. The catalog company contacts you two weeks later and says the shipment will be delayed 60 days. You agree to the delay. The 60 days have passed, and you may be outside of the time to dispute the charges. Can you still dispute the charge?

Maybe. When a shipment is delayed, credit card issuers often are more generous when they calculate the time for allowing disputes, and may extend the 60-day period. To take advantage of this flexibility, include the following information in your dispute letter.

  • Tell the credit card issuer if you didn’t expect to be charged for the merchandise before it was shipped. Some credit card issuers make an exception to the general industry rule against sellers charging before shipping if the seller tells you about its practice at the time of sale. If you’re sure the seller said nothing or wasn’t clear about its charge practice, the credit card issuer is more likely to allow the dispute.
  • Tell the credit card issuer when delivery was expected. Some issuers use the expected date of delivery rather than the charge date as the start time for you to dispute charges. If you dispute the charge within a reasonable time after the expected delivery date passes, chances are good that the card issuer will honor the dispute. When you order or when a seller notifies you of delayed shipment, it’s important to keep a record of the promised shipment or delivery date. Include a copy of any documentation of the shipment or delivery date when disputing the charge with your card issuer.

Disputing a Debit Card Charge

The consumer protections for a debit card differ from protections for a credit card. You may not be able to dispute a debit and get a refund for non-delivery or late delivery. Still, some debit card issuers may voluntarily offer protections and solutions to problems like not getting merchandise you bought with a debit card. See our sample letter, and contact your debit card issuer for more information.

Your Rights When Shopping by Phone, Mail or Online

The Mail, Internet, or Telephone Order Merchandise Rule applies to most goods you order by mail, phone, fax, or online. It requires sellers to have a reasonable basis for claiming they can ship an order within a certain time and details what sellers should do if there is a delay.

Ship Dates

  • By law, a seller should ship your order within the time stated in its ads or over the phone. If the seller doesn’t promise a time, you can expect it to ship your order within 30 days.
  • The shipment “clock” begins when the seller receives a “properly completed order.” That includes your name, address and payment (check, money order or authorization to charge an existing credit account — whether the account is charged at that time or not).
  • If the seller doesn’t promise a shipping time, and you are applying for credit to pay for your purchase, the seller has an additional 20 days (50 days total) to establish the account and ship the merchandise.


If the seller is unable to ship within the promised time, it must notify you, give a revised shipping date and give you the chance to cancel for a full refund or accept the new shipping date. The seller also must give you some way to exercise the cancellation option for free — for example, by supplying a prepaid reply card or staffing a toll-free telephone number.

  • If you don’t respond — and the delay is 30 days or less — it’s assumed that you accept the delay and are willing to wait for the merchandise.
  • If you don’t respond — and the delay is more than 30 days — the order must be canceled by the 30th day of the delay period and a full refund issued promptly.

If the seller can’t meet the revised shipping date, it must notify you again by mail, email or telephone and give you a new shipping date or cancel your order and give you a refund.

  • The order should be canceled and a refund issued promptly unless you indicate by the revised shipping date that you are willing to wait.
  • If you don’t respond to the second notice, the seller should assume that you are not willing to wait issue a full refund promptly.


If you pay by cash, check or money order, or a non-seller credit card, the seller must give you a refund within seven working days after the order is canceled.

If you pay by credit card where the seller is the card issuer, the seller must credit your account within one billing cycle after the order is canceled.

Shopping Tips

Follow these tips for hassle-free shopping.

  • Consider your experience with the company or its general reputation before you order. If you’ve never heard of the seller, enter its name in a search engine with words like “complaint” or “scam,” and read about other people’s experiences with the company. In addition, contact your state Attorney General, and local consumer protection agency to see if any complaints are on file.
  • Check out the company’s refund and return policies, the item’s availability, and the total cost of your purchase before you place your order.
  • Get a shipment date.
  • Keep records of your order, like the website, ad or catalog from which you ordered; the company’s name, address and phone number; any promises the company made about shipping and when they were made; the date of your order; and a copy of the order form you sent to the company. If you’re ordering by phone, keep a list of the items, their stock codes, and the order confirmation code; your canceled check or the charge or debit statement showing the charge for your order; and any communications to or from the company.
  • Track your purchases. When you order online, keep printouts of the web pages with the details of the transaction, including the seller’s return policies, in case you’re not satisfied.