Don’t worry, American Express has your number

By | July 27th, 2016

Ed Lawrence and his wife arrived in London from Boston on a Sunday with almost no cash.

His ATM card didn’t work anymore. Neither did his Visa or Mastercard cash advance without the personal identification number (PIN).

But American Express did in a big way.

“I was thinking I would withdraw some cash at Heathrow after I arrived,” Lawrence says. “My ATM card worked fine on a previous trip to London, but the cash machine now declined my transaction. I tried a credit card advance next, but the machine wanted a PIN. Neither of us had arranged for credit card PINs.”

Hey, I don’t know mine either. But even though Amex also needed a PIN, the rep came through with a creative work-around for just such an occasion.

I remember needing to walk into an actual bank building during business hours to withdraw cash, relying on a live human. Gasp. My parents were paid in cash in an envelope when they first started working.

Today, our cashless society, combined with ATM reliance everywhere, has rendered us inattentive to empty wallets at a time when not all businesses accept credit cards when traveling. And lest we forget, let’s appreciate the good fortune to have this problem in our privileged society.

When used prudently with minimal revolving interest, credit cards have their upside for keeping records and receipts of expenses, renting a car, contesting purchases that have gone awry, and preventing money theft when traveling — making travelers checks so last century. Even Karl Malden should approve. Apparently, he never left home without them.

And while credit card cash advance and currency conversion fees can stack up, especially when abroad, it may well be worth the peace of mind. Travelers checks have fees too.

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“The nearest currency exchange human was eager to help, but no dice,” Lawrence continued. “They still needed that PIN since they use the same ATM system. Eventually we will need cash for noncredit purchases. Defeated, we went to the hotel and, after check-in, proceeded to contact my credit card providers online.”


Lawrence’s banking institution, a credit union, was closed until Monday and harder to reach. He later learned his cash withdrawal request was flagged as suspicious activity. Users now usually need to notify the bank in advance of any impending use abroad as the institutions’ triggering algorithms become stricter.

He was not aware of this, and that’s OK. Not everyone is. While this is a good thing, banks are actually protecting themselves more than you.

So, what about a MasterCard or Visa cash advance? “They could only provide a PIN in about eight to 10 days, mailed to your home address,” he went on.

What about a PIN over the phone? Fuhgeddaboudit. No one at the company is allowed to know the number.

“I was down to my American Express expecting to strike out since their PIN would take days also,” Lawrence lamented.

Not so fast.

“The Amex rep saved the day by providing a one-time only PIN good for a $500 cash advance after I answered a bunch of security questions,” he added. “I had to sign onto my email account to acknowledge their email to receive the PIN. This took less than five minutes.”

As an Amex customer for 25 years, I have found them to be a particularly loyal and effective advocate whether contesting an adversarial purchase or needing a myriad of personalized travel and billing troubleshooting with real-time problem solving skills. Apparently, I am not alone. My favorite part is rarely being on hold and a rep that always seems to know their stuff 24/7. I also value their included purchase protection provisions, rental car insurance and unrestricted “no catch” rewards points program (sorry, Chris Elliott).

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The bigger lesson here is a real live human was able to use their best professional judgment on a moment’s notice to strike a balance between protecting both the customer’s and company’s interests while addressing an unusual and urgent request. That is customer service.

Best professional judgment. Sigh. Something we do not experience that often anymore.

“My lesson learned is to call your credit and ATM card companies before leaving home to let them know about your travel plans and get PINs for your cards, including the Amex,” Lawrence concluded.

And as Malden used to say, “Don’t leave home without it.”



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