It is not always best to pay in cash. Putting a purchase on a credit card may help you if a service dispute arises, because the Fair Credit Billing Act allows consumers to dispute card-billing problems. This includes items that arrive damaged… items that are never delivered… overbilling… double billing… and phantom or fraudulent charges.

For the quickest, fairest resolution when you dispute a credit card charge…

GET DETAILS IN WRITING

Insist on getting documentation from the merchant if an item is going to be delivered to you… or promises are made about an item’s condition or quality. Ask for written confirmation at the time of purchase stating when the item will be delivered… when the services will be provided… what services will be provided (in detail)… and what condition any items purchased will be in.

Save your receipts. These could help resolve your claim. True, your card statement should document the transaction, but receipts often include additional details, such as the formal name and contact information for the company, that can make all the difference in a dispute.

COMPLAIN TO THE MERCHANT

Your credit card issuer will not investigate your disputed charge unless you can show that you already have made a “good faith effort” to work out the problem with the merchant.

If possible, make a face-to-face visit and take any defective merchandise back to the store from which you bought it. If you talk in person or on the telephone, keep a detailed record of each conversation that includes times, dates, names and any promises made to you… or explanations of why your request for a refund is being denied.

CONTACT THE CARD ISSUER NEXT

Call the customer service number on the back of your credit card, and tell the phone rep that you wish to dispute a charge. Explain that you already tried to get the merchant to resolve the problem and that you want payment withheld if it hasn’t been made already.

By law, card issuers are required to investigate only disputes of $50 or more and only those that took place within the buyer’s home state or 100 miles of his/her home — but in practice, especially in the case of outright fraud, card issuers rarely invoke the distance requirement and sometimes they try to resolve disputes on charges that are below $50 as well.

If you buy online or by phone: That purchase is considered to have been made at home.

Card issuers often let customers file disputes over the phone — particularly when the dispute involves unauthorized use of a credit card — but in some cases, you will be sent a form and asked to file your claim in writing. (Many card issuers also let customers file claims online. Ask the phone rep how to do this.) Disputes typically must be filed within 60 days of receiving the bill.

Exception: There is no time limit for filing disputes over unauthorized use of a credit card.

The issuer must respond to your claim within 90 days or two billing cycles, whichever comes first. Until the matter is resolved, you won’t have to pay the amount in dispute — and you won’t accrue any interest. However, if your claim ends up being denied, the issuer can charge you interest going back to the date you filed the claim.

If you’re unhappy with the dispute’s outcome, your best bet is to file a complaint with your state attorney general, the Better Business Bureau and/or the Federal Trade Commission.