Bad American Express

Last week I asked for your charge card stories, and many of you were happy to oblige. My Internet service provider worked overtime to process the hundreds of reader responses.

Most of the letters were about American Express. Virtually none of them were very flattering.

“I cut up my Amex card after four years as a loyal, fee-paying customer,” wrote Peter Warren. Why? When he wanted to charge a new piece of furniture to his card, American Express wouldn’t authorize the transaction because, “the expense was higher then my historic spending pattern.” He went back home and sliced the card to smithereens.

M. Stuart Nimmons wasn’t as dramatic about ditching his American Express card. “I just cut up my card that I’ve had since ’65,” he reports. “It was renewal time and there was no amount of arguing that could convince me that it was worth paying $75 for the privilege of carrying their card around. Visa and MasterCard have both elevated me to Platinum without a fee and without my begging and they are accepted virtually anyplace I offer them. Amex is living on its past laurels and on people who blindly renew.”

Ted Kennedy says he’s on the verge of cutting his card to pieces. “I have been an Amex member since 1966 and am ready to cut it up. My complaint lies with their statement format. It is almost impossible for a college graduate to figure out how much he owes in any given month,” he says. “They divide the charges over two pages and you literally have to add the two pages together to figure out your real total. I have written, phoned, complained bitterly, had finance charges removed, yadda, yadda, but they won’t listen to their customers on this as they are making too much money on the finance charges.”

Can American Express be that bad? Read on.

“I cancelled my personal card several years ago due to the excessive annual fees and lack of benefits,” wrote Mark Blevins. “I have also cancelled the corporate card program for my company for a variety of reasons, the most glaring of which is the total lack of card security measures at Amex.”

Blevins tells the disturbing story of one of his customer service representatives who turned in his corporate card on leaving the company. The card was cancelled and he didn’t give the matter a second thought.

“Two years later, a report crossed my desk indicating that several hundred dollars worth of charges had been recently incurred by the departed representative. I found that a secretary had recorded the card number years before to order materials for a trade show attended by all the customer service representatives. She continued to use this number periodically for the same kind of orders for the next two years, indicating that charges were proper when my payables people would call for invoice approval,” he continues.

So what did Amex have to say about the breakdown?

A vice president called him to confirm that it had no security feature to disallow charges on a cancelled card, “but promised to bring the matter up internally and get back to me with further info. It’s been four years now and I’m still waiting.”

Not only can American Express be incompetent, according to the letters that landed in my mailbox. It can also be mean.

“I was in Paris a few years back, and needed cash,” remembers Stan Stewart, a self-described ex-Amex victim. “I went to the Amex office on Place de’l Opera, walked in and asked for some. The guy at the counter suggested I use the machine outside on the street, so I did. After several screw-arounds, the machine turned me down and kept my card. I headed back in, but the office had closed. By the way, they billed me for the money they did not advance.”

Shawne Carter McGibbon tells the story of a disputed charge with a New Jersey hotel. The property agreed not to charge McGibbon because of a “bad experience” at the hotel, but American Express demanded payment in full. “Beginning around the time of the dispute, Amex changed the payment due date on my monthly statement to ‘due upon receipt’ as opposed to ‘due by.’ American Express sent me a nasty note demanding payment and threatening ominous action,” McGibbon writes. “I was outraged and insulted. I’m not some sort of deadbeat trying to avoid paying my bill. So much for customer service – I can’t even get it at home, so why leave home with it?”

Did anyone have anything nice to say about American Express? A few did, but they represented a small minority.

Clifford Donley wrote to tell me about the time his father, wife, and he were stranded at Tampa on a flight to Cleveland for his mother’s funeral. “The dreaded announcement came over the speaker – broken airplane. I got on my cellphone, called American Express with details about the situation. They had me hold on while they found an alternative flight on a different carrier, got us ticketed on it, had them hold the airplane, and had us rushed to the other terminal. We actually arrived in Cleveland before the scheduled arrival of our original airplane,” he says.

And Terrence Swift wrote to say “while I do agree that Amex charges too much to have their card, I will say that the service has been far superior to that provided by Visa – namely, when it comes to protesting unwarranted charges. American Express has, on several occasions, been much quicker to resolve these disputes.”

See. I didn’t think American Express could be that bad.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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