Online shopping portals are awesome because they provide a way to earn extra rewards for stuff you buy online. The problem is, they don’t always work. In order to get rewarded for clicking through a portal, a lot of things have to go right:
- The portal has to correctly track that you clicked through
- The portal has to pass along tracking information to the vendor
- The vendor has to report the sale back to the portal (or, often, to an affiliate network middle-man).
- The portal has to match up the reported sale with your initial click-through. At this point, the portal should list your rewards as “pending”.
- The vendor has to pay an affiliate commission to the portal (often via the affiliate network middle-man). Often, it is not until this happens that portals actually pay out the rewards.
At any step, above, things can go wrong. And, since starting this blog, I’ve heard often from readers who did not earn expected rewards from portals. TopCashBack, in particular, used to be called out frequently by readers who said that they never received their expected cash back.
For about three years, I seemed to be the lone exception. My portal use always worked flawlessly. OK, that’s a slight exaggeration, but it’s close to the truth. Most of the time, when a portal purchase didn’t work, it was because I had done something that wasn’t supposed to work. For example, sometimes I bought gift cards from merchants that specifically didn’t offer portal rewards for such purchases. That was fine. In fact, most such purchases were done as tests for the Frequent Miler Laboratory to see what worked and what didn’t. Often, I found, even if the terms for a merchant said that gift cards were excluded from portal rewards, they would pay out anyway. So, it has been (and continues to be) well worth keeping those results in a form accessible by readers (and myself!).
The most amazing string of successes I had was in March 2013 when I decided to try to earn a million points & miles in one month. My challenge to myself was successful (you can find the final tally here). I earned over half a million points from credit card signup bonuses, and most of the rest from shopping portals (full details here). Almost every day of the month, I clicked through online portals and bought and/or used gift cards. I still find it incredible when I think back about it – every single portal click-through was successful. That is, every single time I clicked through a portal to either buy gift cards or to use gift cards to buy merchandise, the purchases tracked through the portal and I later received points or cash back.
My portal superpowers ended abruptly earlier this year when TopCashBack began offering 2.25% cash back for Amex business gift cards every two weeks. As I mentioned in the post, My Amex gift card strategy, my Amex gift card purchases through TopCashBack have not tracked at all this year. Every single time I’ve clicked through and placed an order for Amex gift cards, I’ve had to later file a missing cash back claim. Luckily, the claims have been resolved very quickly each time, but it’s a hassle I’d really like to avoid.
Where was the breakdown?
Let’s look at the list of things that must go right, one by one:
- The portal has to correctly track that you clicked through: I know that TopCashBack recorded my click-throughs each time. I know this because when I go to submit a missing cash back claim, the date and time of the click-through is selectable from the TopCashBack interface.
- The portal has to pass along tracking information to the vendor: I believe this is working. See #3, below.
- The vendor has to report the sale back to the portal: The fact that each of my claims has been resolved within days suggests to me that TopCashBack already had the information it needed in-hand. In other words, I believe that Amex had already reported the sale to TopCashBack.
- The portal has to match up the reported sale with your initial click-through: This is where I think that things are going wrong. In each of the resolved support tickets, TopCashBack left a comment saying, in part: “We have received notification of a transaction which seems to match your claim and this has been added to your account.” Since these comments come quickly after I submit each ticket, I believe that TopCashBack already had the necessary information. The problem has been that, for some reason, the computer isn’t automatically matching my click through to the reported sale.
- The vendor has to pay an affiliate commission to the portal: I haven’t had any problems with Amex gift card cash back moving from pending to paid, so I know this isn’t the issue.
Testing different approaches
In the off chance that the tracking problems are my fault, I’ve tried a number of different approaches so far…
1. Incognito mode
A commonly suggested solution to portal tracking problems is to put your browser into incognito / private mode before logging into the portal and shopping. I tried it. No luck.
2. Log into Amex account first
A reader told me that the trick to getting TopCashBack to track properly is to log into your Amex account first, then open another browser window to click through from TopCashBack. In his case, the transactions tracked right away once he started doing that. I tried it. It didn’t work for me.
3. Buy generic gift cards
I usually buy Amex Custom Message business gift cards so that I can put my name on them. Some merchants ask to compare the name on my ID to the name on the credit card, so the custom message cards are a great solution. It occurred to me, though, that maybe my tracking trouble was with these gift cards. Between that suspicion and the fact that the Amex gift card site was giving an error when I clicked on Custom Message Card (under the Business Gift Cards menu), I decided to buy generic gift cards. No luck. The order didn’t track.
Note: a reader named Mike reported that refreshing the page fixed the error so that he was able to buy Custom Message Cards. And, his cash back showed pending by the next morning.
I’ve never had an error when placing an AGC order and TCB has always tracked automatically, after I started following these 2 rules:
1. Use an incognito window for every AGC order. This adds extra step of logging into cashback portal and AmEx account for every order.
2. You must login to AmEx account BEFORE clicking through the cb portal. This can be a separate tab in the same incognito window of browser.
Before starting your next consecutive order, kill the incognito window and start afresh.
So, this suggestion is a combination of experiments 1 and 2, above. It can’t hurt. I’ll give this a try next time, but I think its very unlikely that it will work. Another thing I may try is to use my wife’s TopCashBack account. Maybe something is messed up with mine.
Other reader suggestions?
Do you have other suggestions for how to force TopCashBack to automatically track Amex gift card orders? If your idea sounds reasonable, I’ll give it a try. Please comment below.