Refund fraud: What it is and how businesses can protect themselves


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  1. Introduction
  2. What is refund fraud?
  3. Types of refund fraud
  4. Refund fraud vs return fraud: what’s the difference?
  5. Refund fraud examples
  6. How to prevent refund and return fraud

Refund fraud has emerged as a significant concern that threatens both the financial health of businesses and customer trust, and understanding and addressing the risks associated with refund fraud has become a top business priority.

According to the National Retail Federation, US retailers lost US$25.3 billion to fraudulent returns in 2020. As the volume of e-commerce sales increases, so does refund fraud.

Below, we’ll cover what refund fraud is, shed light on the deceptive tactics that fraudulent actors use to exploit refund policies and manipulate financial systems, and discuss steps that businesses can take to prevent and fight this type of fraud.

What’s in this article?

  • What is refund fraud?
  • Types of refund fraud
  • Refund fraud vs return fraud: what’s the difference?
  • Refund fraud examples
  • How to prevent refund and return fraud

What is refund fraud?

Refund fraud is a type of payment fraud in which an individual or a group of people falsely claim a refund or reimbursement from a company, government, or financial institution. The purpose of this fraud is to deceive the target organisation into issuing a refund or reimbursement, even though the fraudulent actor has not legitimately incurred any expenses and is not entitled to such compensation.

Essentially, refund fraud takes place when someone tricks a company into giving them money back for a product or service that they didn’t actually buy, or when they falsely claim there’s a problem with the product or service that they received. This type of fraud can be very costly to businesses and damage their reputation with customers.

Types of refund fraud

Refund fraud isn’t limited to a single mechanism of fraudulent activity – it’s a category that encompasses a variety of tactics. There are several forms of refund fraud, including:

  • Return fraud
    Return fraud occurs when a person returns a product to a retailer or an online store, claiming it is damaged, defective, or unsatisfactory, even though the product is in good condition or has been used or tampered with.

  • Chargeback fraud
    In chargeback fraud, a customer disputes a legitimate charge on their credit card, claiming that the product or service was not received, was unsatisfactory, or that the charge was unauthorised. The fraudulent actor’s goal is to force the business or service provider to issue a refund, even though they have already received and used the product or service.

  • Tax refund fraud
    This type of fraud involves filing false or fraudulent tax returns to claim a tax refund to which the fraudulent actor is not entitled. The scammer may use stolen personal information, create false documents, or manipulate the tax system in other ways to obtain a refund.

  • Insurance refund fraud
    In insurance refund fraud, an individual or group submits false or exaggerated insurance claims to obtain a refund or reimbursement from an insurance company. Tactics that fraudulent actors use to commit insurance fraud may include staging accidents, inflating damages, or fabricating losses.

  • Wardrobing or wear and return
    In this scenario, customers purchase items such as clothing or electronics, use them for a short period (e.g. for one special event or one project), and then return them for a refund – essentially treating the store as a free rental service.

  • Receipt fraud
    Fraudulent actors use fake or altered receipts to return stolen items, items purchased on sale, or items bought from a different store, in order to receive a full refund or store credit.

  • Price switching
    A fraudulent actor swaps the price tag or barcode of a more expensive item with that of a cheaper one, making the purchase at the lower price, and then returns the item using the original, higher-priced receipt to receive a larger refund.

  • Employee-assisted fraud
    A dishonest employee processes fraudulent refunds or returns without the customer’s knowledge, for personal gain.

The tactics that fraudulent actors use change constantly to keep pace with the evolution of retail companies. Further below, we’ll discuss how businesses can stay agile and respond to these shifting vulnerabilities.

Refund fraud vs return fraud: what’s the difference?

Refund fraud and return fraud are closely related terms that are sometimes used interchangeably, but they aren’t exactly the same. In short, return fraud is a subset of refund fraud that specifically targets the retail industry by exploiting product return policies. Refund fraud is a more general term covering a wider range of fraudulent activities aimed at obtaining unwarranted refunds or reimbursements.

Here’s more information about their subtle but important differences:

  • Refund fraud is a broader term that encompasses different types of scams aimed at deceiving a company, government, or financial institution into issuing a refund or reimbursement to the fraudulent actor, who is not entitled to it. Refund fraud can occur in many contexts, such as tax refunds, chargebacks, insurance reimbursements, and more.

  • Return fraud is a specific type of refund fraud that targets both physical and online retailers. In return fraud, a person returns a product to the retailer, falsely claiming that it is damaged, defective, or unsatisfactory, even though the product is in good condition or has been used or tampered with. The fraudulent actor’s goal is to deceive the retailer into issuing a refund or providing a replacement when the customer is not entitled to it.

Refund fraud examples

Here are a few real-life examples of refund fraud in different settings:

  • Electronics store: A customer purchases a high-end camera, uses it during a holiday, then returns it to the store, claiming it didn’t meet their expectations. The store processes the refund, failing to realise that the customer used their business as a free rental service.

  • Clothing retailer: A shopper buys an expensive dress, wears it to a special event, and then returns it with the tags still attached, claiming it didn’t fit. The retailer refunds the customer, even though the dress was already worn.

  • Online marketplace: A buyer purchases a designer handbag from a third-party seller, then files a chargeback claim with their credit card company, alleging the handbag was counterfeit. The seller is forced to issue a refund, even though the handbag was genuine, and the buyer keeps the item.

  • Supermarket: A fraudulent actor shoplifts several items from a supermarket, then returns them to the same store later, presenting a fake receipt. The store refunds the value of the items, unaware that they were stolen.

  • Home improvement store: A customer buys an expensive power tool, replaces the original item with a cheaper, used one, and returns the package to the store. The store processes the return, not realising that the item inside the box is not the one they sold.

These situations demonstrate some of the ways that refund fraud can occur across different industries and retail settings. Businesses need to be watchful and adopt effective fraud prevention strategies and precautions to minimise the impact of such fraudulent activities on their operations and reputation.

How to prevent refund and return fraud

There are several steps that businesses can take to prevent and combat refund fraud, including working with a comprehensive fraud prevention and detection solution such as Stripe Radar. Implementing the following strategies can help minimise the risk and potential financial impact of this category of fraud:

  • Develop clear refund policies – and communicate them effectively
    Establish clear and concise refund and return policies that outline the conditions under which refunds or returns will be accepted. Make these policies easily accessible and visible to customers, both in-store and online.

  • Verify customer information around refunds
    Verify the identity and contact information of customers who request refunds. This may include checking their ID, confirming their purchase history, or using additional authentication methods.

  • Implement strict return procedures
    Create strict procedures for accepting and processing returns. This may include inspecting returned items for signs of tampering, verifying their condition, and tracking return requests from individual customers to identify patterns of suspicious behaviour. The goal is not to prevent customers from executing legitimate returns (especially because this can translate to a rise in chargebacks) but to ensure that fraudulent returns are flagged. This is a delicate – and important – balancing act.

  • Use machine learning–powered fraud solutions
    Employ advanced technology, such as artificial intelligence or machine-learning algorithms, to analyse transaction data and detect potential refund fraud patterns. These algorithms can be trained to recognise suspicious behaviour and automatically flag transactions or refund requests that require further investigation. For example, Stripe Radar uses machine learning that trains using data points from millions of companies globally. This is the level of self-evolving technology that you want to power your fraud detection and prevention efforts.

  • Monitor transactions
    Regularly monitor transactions for unusual activity, such as multiple refunds to the same customer, frequent returns of high-value items, or a sudden spike in refund requests. Investigate any suspicious patterns promptly. Fraud solutions that use behavioural biometrics can analyse the unique behavioural traits of users, such as typing patterns, device usage, and interaction with digital interfaces, to verify their identity. By implementing behavioural biometrics, businesses can better detect potential fraudulent actors who attempt to exploit the refund process. Again, the right fraud detection technology, including Stripe Radar, will do most of this work for you.

  • Make sure that employees can spot and handle fraud
    All the technology in the world isn’t a substitute for a well-informed team of skilled employees who are trained to keep watch for potential fraud indicators. Educate your team about the various types of refund fraud, and train them to identify potential red flags. Provide guidelines for handling suspicious transactions or refund requests.

  • Improve record-keeping
    Maintain accurate records of all transactions, including sales, refunds, and returns. This will help facilitate investigations and allow you to provide evidence in case of disputes.

  • Strengthen online security
    Implement robust security measures for online transactions, such as SSL encryption, two-factor authentication, and secure payment gateways. This can help reduce the risk of chargeback fraud and other forms of refund fraud. Using a payment processing provider like Stripe, whose payment solutions have these protections built in, is a powerful way to uphold exceptional security standards with minimal drain on internal resources.

  • Continuously strive for improvement and adaptation
    Regularly review and update your refund fraud mitigation strategies to stay ahead of evolving fraud tactics. This may involve conducting internal audits, staying informed about the latest fraud trends, and adopting new technologies.

By employing these sophisticated tactics, businesses can reduce their exposure to refund fraud and protect their financial interests as well as their customers. Because no single strategy can guarantee complete protection against refund fraud, it’s important to remain vigilant, stay on top of the latest fraud trends, and work with your fraud protection providers and internal teams to adapt to the constantly evolving tactics and techniques of fraudulent actors.

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