Drawing the line


Ever since I began posting tricks for earning points and miles people have approached me with schemes involving buying and returning merchandise.  The idea is usually to go through an online portal to buy merchandise and collect lots of points.  Then, return the items in a way that prevents the merchant from clawing back the awarded points.  Sometimes the tricks are simpler: buy items with one credit card and return for cash or credit to a different card so that the earned credit card points don’t get withdrawn.  I’ve never tried these tricks and I’ve never published them.  The reason?  For me, earning points this way crosses the line.  My line.

Everybody has a line that they won’t cross.  For some people, double dip techniques I often write about are across the line — their line.  Others happily take things much further.  As long as people aren’t breaking the law, I don’t think badly of them for drawing the line beyond where I do.  And, I hope that those who think I step over the line don’t think badly of me.

I don’t have a set rule for where to draw the line.  Basically, if it feels wrong to me, I won’t do it.  There’s also my exterior conscience – my wife.  Every now and then there is something that seems OK to me, but not to my wife.  In those cases I’ll refrain from stepping over her line.  Here are a couple of examples:

  • When Radisson first held its 50K promotion (earn 50K points after one night stay), I signed up my entire family… and my dog.  My intent was to book cheap Radisson stays from each person’s (and dog’s) account and then check-in just for the points.  My wife was very clear about this one: humans are OK, dogs are not.  She’s not usually one to discriminate against dogs, so I respected her opinion.  Our Lhasa Apso has a Club Carlson account, but has never booked a stay.  I don’t know how he feels about missing out on 50,000 points.  He doesn’t talk about it.
  • A few weeks ago, Million Mile Secrets (MMS) set off a firestorm by posting a way for non-elites to enter the elite security lines at airports.  Many readers were appalled and took MMS to task for advocating an unethical line-cutting technique. Others defended MMS and pointed out that this was no different than taking advantage of other travel related loopholes such as credit card churning, status matching, etc. To be honest, I thought his technique was great.  I saw it as a great way to get into shorter lines.  I didn’t think that anyone would be harmed in any meaningful way.  My wife, on the other hand, saw it differently.  To her, this was a clear, unconscionable, violation of rules.  End of discussion.  Back to the long line for me.

When I think about the difference between my line and my wife’s, I see a clear difference in philosophy.  The reason I don’t like schemes that involve returning stuff is that those schemes hurt the vendors.  The vendors incur many costs without any benefit: they cover portal fees, shipping & handling, credit card processing fees, and whatever costs are involved in handling returns. In return for all of that, they get nothing.  On the other hand, booking a room in my dog’s name does no harm (at least no proximal harm).  And, switching to the fast security lane does no harm except maybe to delay a couple of elite travelers by a few seconds.  In fact, it probably helps more people than it hurts (by shortening the longer security line).  In other words, I think that my line is drawn primarily by a judgment call about the outcome: does it hurt anyone?  My wife’s line, though, may be drawn by the rules: is it breaking any rules? 

So, given all of that rambling, the line I now draw can be described as “do no harm and break no rules.”  In truth, though, I don’t analyze each opportunity in this way.  I simply decide whether it feels right to me, and whether or not I should tell my wife Winking smile.

What about you?  Where do you draw the line?

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About Greg The Frequent Miler

Greg is the owner, founder, and primary author of the Frequent Miler. He earns millions of points and miles each year, mostly without flying, and dedicates this blog to teaching others how to do the same.

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  1. This article reminds me of a fascinating discussion we shared about ethics in this game a few Fridays ago at FTU. Great article, thanks for sharing.

  2. Look, everyone reads all of these blogs to tweak the system and push the limits to the max. it would be hypocritical of any reader to try and game the system and then complain the way someone else does it. If they don’t like gaming systems stop reading these blogs. IMHO
    i love your work

  3. LOL @ “Our Lhasa Apso has a Club Carlson account, but has never booked a stay. I don’t know how he feels about missing out on 50,000 points. He doesn’t talk about it.”

  4. Morality like beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Personally I don’t feel bad about getting over on any companies that are “big box” type of stores. Small businesses are my line I suppose since I understand it is more likely to be taken out of someones personal expense.But if a company has made it possible for me to take advantage of them and there is no legal penalty I don’t feel a reason to be guilty just because I figured out something the MAJORITY of people don’t know. But to be honest if I had gotten over on a small business but didn’t realize it till later I wouldn’t feel bad. I dont have the time haha. In many contexts this holds true: “If your not playing the game, your loosing it.”

  5. I totally agree with you. I am new to this points game and feel that everybody(vendor, credit card company and I )all should benefit SOME along the way, otherwise, it won’t last long. We need to have a peace of mind when we go to bed. Returning is totally wrong if you think the company has to lay people off if it is unprofitable.I have paid by myself and traveled to Egypt, Italy, France, India, Spain, Greece… Just very happy to learn and earn some points for my future travel. Enjoyed your blog a lot. Thanks.

  6. I also worry about crossing the “imaginary” line with Chase or AMEX. I don’t want a financial review or to have my accounts closed. I stay within what I think is reasonable not how far I could push it. If I loose my accounts the fun is over. I really enjoy your blog I am very much a numbers guy so I relate to your thinking. Keep up the good work!

  7. Good post. I have to fess up that in years gone by I have gotten a debit card for my dog. Actually both my dogs. On reflection, think that was too far. Of course if you end up breaking the law then that is the wrong side of the line and some people do that and end up in jail: http://www.fbi.gov/seattle/press-releases/2012/brothers-who-defrauded-nordstrom-with-online-reward-scheme-sentenced-to-two-years-in-prison-for-wire-fraud. Amusingly on release one of those guys was back on SlickDeals trying to work out more tricks

  8. The line I won’t cross is I won’t do any apps for my stay-at-home wife since Reg Z of the Card Act prohibits the use of household income. I see countless folks counsel just using HHI anyways and/or listing consultant or something, but I won’t touch that. Kills me a bit since my wife has zero cards with Chase, Citi or Amex.

    I do follow quite closely the effort to amend Reg Z, and if/when the rule change proposed in October is enacted my wife will be going for a few cards ASAP. The rule change just finished up the 60 day comment period, so I am hoping it will be adopted in Q1.

    My wife isn’t crazy about doing a ton of apps (she wants a pristine credit score) so we will negotiate how many apps we do per year. She is quite justice oriented and was kind of annoyed that the government told businesses that they can’t open credit lines to her.

  9. Well, telling the complete truth has worked well for me. If you have to lie or hold back some truth, it should not be done or suggested to others.

  10. I won’t do anything that involves killing another person. I also don’t feel right about holding someone against their will. For me, that is crossing the line.

  11. Here’s the line a CEO uses in his code of ethics for his employees:

    “…I want employees to ask themselves whether they are willing to have any contemplated act appear the next day on the front page of their local paper – to be read by their spouses, children and friends – with the reporting done by an informed and critical reporter.”

  12. I think people should define the bar as follows: If you would not be willing to explain what you did to somebody whose spiritual guidance or opinion you respect, then you shouldn’t be doing it.

  13. Following on bluto’s post – if you post on your blog about a topic where you and your spouse have differing opinions, do so in a way that it could be read by them, you kids, or any of their extended family could read it and not get upset. Well done FM (except maybe the tongue in cheek ending about telling her!).

  14. I’ve been struggling with this lately, so this is a timely post.

    A couple of things I’ve done recently that I probably don’t feel quite right about. One, was getting a business card without a business. I read one too many “get a business card – even if you’re just thinking about a business someday”. I didn’t lie on my application really, even though by just applying for a business card without a business you’re lying. At a minimum, it was unethical.

    The other thing I’ve done is the same thing just about every other person in this game have done. I bought a few gift cards at OD basically turning business expenses into personal expenses – which clearly violates the T&C of the credit card. Again, in my opinion, it was unethical.

    I think I’m going to re-think my hobby and maybe “redraw” some of my ethical lines. But, it’s such a fun game to play! My wife already thinks I’m nuts – especially when I change out her credit card weekly depending on which points I’m after.

    So, one my “lines” going forward will be whether or not the action clearly is against the T&C of the card. Hey, one less person buying those $500 gift cards at OD! It should help keep that option available for the rest of you! At least for another month or two.

  15. @Dave – If you live in a community property state then your wife can put down your income in the credit card application. This was clarified by the fed.

  16. Wow, great input everyone! Just to reply to a few of the comments above: I too am against murder and hostage taking. I’ll admit to bending rules in other places mentioned: Amex Platinum gift cards (guilty of something very similar), applying for business cards without a real business (guilty, but not anymore thanks to the blogging business!), and using business cards for personal stuff (guilty). Oh gee, now I feel bad…

  17. I now will have to think twice about returning things. Last week, I went to Bath & Body Works just to swap out a shower gel. As the clerk was doing the exchange for me, she wrote all over the one I returned and threw it straight into the trash. I immediately told her that it wasn’t used & I just didn’t like it as much (my husband picked it out). She then told me that any product that left the store will not be resold & had to be thrown away. I was shocked & insisted to take back the item I returned. It really made me wonder how many of the unopened items I returned went straight to the trash can. Lesson learned: think, think & think before making a purchase!

  18. FM,

    Huge props, man. I feel like this community of bloggers has been headed down a slippery slope in this regard for awhile. I appreciate the integrity!

    Take care

  19. The problem my wife is she returns things I buy for her, in some cases after the points aren’t taken back. That’s just one of the reasons I love her. 🙂

  20. I overpaid my utility bill 20k in order to make a minimum spend and then cancelled the account to get a refund check. I will probably not employ this tactic again. At the time I likened it to using a 100 bill to buy a pack of gum but on a larger scale. However my wife was not happy having 3 months income floating around in the mail.

  21. great post! I pretty much agree with you, that if nobody is getting hurt by it I’m more likely to view it as “okay.” However, one could argue that making a CC account for your dog would “hurt” CC, since you’ll be redeeming those points in the future without paying when really the dog shouldn’t have gotten them to begin with. However, you could also argue it may make you a lifelong CC consumer and you may in turn end up spending way more there than you would have without your dog’s points. But Club Carlson is pretty much like Sears or Office Depot in that example, if you know what I mean.

    but really great post – really relevant right now with all these new ways to earn tons of points. Your wife would probably scold me for some of my decisions, but I try to be as honest as possible 🙂

  22. Just posted a comment about this on MMS’s post yesterday regarding giving a fake Brazilian address to get a fuel surcharge discount. Most of what MMS posts is acceptable by me.

    I absolutely got sickened by the idea of returning things to Costco and elsewhere to get miles. Seems like several bloggers have posted that horrible technique in the past.

  23. I draw the line where schemes to get miles start hurting the environment or costing an innocent business money. The most recent example was the Avianca Taca Lifemiles 250 bonus per transaction deal. I did take part with some totally online transactions such as e-books, Petsmart donations and e-gift certs before they were disqualified. These were all automatic transactions and no humans (wasting employers’ wages) or packaging (bubble wrap, cartons, packing tape) was involved. But I never would have done something like order 100’s of small bottles of shampoo for $1, each one boxed up separately. Someone had to pay for that and it wasn’t fair to the retailers, the Shoprunner company who had to fork out for free shipping for something they weren’t even involved in and of course the detrimental effect on the environment.

  24. I am here trying to find one post, just one post to get FM to my notorious “Not so best of” category! I think I found it! Getting a Club Carlson account for dog goes way over the line, you are busted:-)

    Ok, good post. Being around this hobby it is amazing to what extent people will go through to score some miles/points. There are some people that I would never want to be associated with in real life. I must say that my line is way in the low levels. First and foremost, do no harm & NEVER break the law. And moderation too as it does not take much to get blacklisted by a bank and get FR’ed!

    For the record, I have never done more than 3 Vanillas at a time (it is usually just one)! Also for the record, I am for murder if it is Osama bin Laden & defend myself from a lunatic trying to kill me.

  25. Thoughtful stuff, FM.

    I deleted MMS from my Blogroll for that one. In my mind, it made the shift from clever to dishonest.

    Slippery slopes are real, and points-lust can make us all walk a bit too far.

  26. This points game is an addiction. We keep pushing the boundaries until the lines start to blur between what is right and what is fundamentally wrong.

    I believe that most of us in this hobby are inherently good people, but I think we all need to take a step back and really evaluate the lengths we are going to and the lines we are crossing all in the name of free travel.

  27. If you booked a Delta flight and had your boarding pass texted to you, the link would always show a boarding pass with “Sky Priority” access on it.

    I used that to my advantage many times. Unfortunately, Delta redesigned their mobile site and that perk is gone.

  28. I totally agree with you about Do No Harm and that’s mainly what affects my conscience. As for breaking the rules, it depends on the rule, the authority making the rule, and how I feel about the rule. I probably wouldn’t register my dog for a loyalty program, but getting in the elite line by showing a silver colored piece of plastic sounds great to me!

  29. I have three young kids who are very aware of my points and miles hobby. My husband and I are trying to raise them as ethical, honest people. If I can’t look one my kids in the eye and explain what I’m up to without feeling like a hypocrite, I don’t do it.

    They giggle at my stack of credit cards and patiently wait for their clothes to arrive via UPS instead of going to the mall, but nothing I’m doing to get points or miles would make me ashamed if were on the news tonight.

  30. btw–I think the TSA puppets have caught onto that “scheme’ to get into shorter lines—on our way to FTU LAX, my friend flashed his TAM FF card, and he got thru…but this time around, when he tried, he was turned away.

  31. Great post! Everyone has to figure out what their line is. For me, I use the test of “how would I feel explaining this to someone else” as a gut check. I agree on the dog though, I can’t imagine signing up the family pet. 😉

  32. The line for me is when I have to ask myself “am I being a douchebag?”

    MMS clearly crossed the douchebag line with his scam to get in the fast security lane – it’s the same douchebag mentality that people use to justify running red lights (it’s only a “little” red they say). Or take two parking spaces because the don’t want scratches on their pimped out, low end, leased BMW. Same with those that buy every single VR in the store – or “hided” them. Or those that browbeat cashiers who won’t sell them a VR with a CC.

  33. Nice trick keep it to yourself and delete this article if you want it to continue working. You wonder why great deals disappear.

    Benjamin Franklin realized modesty can only be achieved by not becoming noticed for ones modest characters.

    We all want to be fawned over but all you did is piss a bunch of people off who deserve to be pissed.

  34. Sorry meant to post to Original Author of that cheap trick. Thanks for reminding people of the externalizes greed places on others.

  35. Just started to read your posts this month, it’s very interesting, thanks for writing all those blogs. I started this game only because I have to go home to see my elder parents once a year and it has to be in summer, the flight tickets easily cost our family of 4 $7000 this year, last year it was $6000. Luckily my friend pointed me here and my goal is simply get all of us a free economy ticket in the summer of 2014.

    With that goal, I guess my line is not that loose. I kind of agree on your line but can’t go as aggressive as you are on monthly spending as well as card churning.

    No matter what, I love your posts, please keep it up!

  36. The high road always provides a better view. Integrity means doing the right thing whether anyone is watching or not. High regards for being brutally honest.

  37. I think what bothers me the most is this: A person or company has a line of their own and they try to impose THEIR lines or limits on ME. An example of this might be something like, “I cannot run 26.2 miles so I don’t think YOU should be able to do that either–because I cant.” That bugs me. I often say to these types of people: Don’t impose YOUR limits on ME. Impose them on you and I’ll consider whether it fits my needs or not. If you cant handle a thing, it doesn’t mean another person works the same way you do.
    I hope that makes sense.
    As for buy/return… I have done it, oh yes I have done it. I don’t actively seek it out any more–I mean if a store lets me and it comes up for something like say returning an item I really don’t need and they let me put it on another card like a debit card, then so be it. But I don’t think I will really do the Nordies and Costco thing again.

  38. I agree with your line, but draw another one. I can’t lie. Even a small lie. If I cannot be truthful completely then I have crossed my line.

  39. Integrity can go a long way these days. It is hard to keep posting about getting more and more miles but at the end of the day, it is good that you drew the line.

  40. FM,
    So you say that you describe the line as “…break no rules”. So how about buying VRs from CVS? Does CVS have a corporate policy not to allow customers to load VRs with a credit card? And if so, wouldn’t finding a CVS that let’s you load them with a CC encourage a CVS employee to break the rules, thereby you’d be indirectly breaking the rules? I’m not trying to corner you, I’m honestly trying to decide whether I should continue buying them to hit my Chase BA Visa minimum spend.

  41. Paul S: Nope, as far as I know, CVS does not have a corporate policy against loading VR with credit cards. In fact, I’m pretty sure that they explicitly allow it, but individual stores sometimes do not. So, this one seems fine to me!

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