The Amex war on gaming heats up

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The next stage of the Amex war on gaming begins tomorrow, November 1st. In August we reported that Amex had added anti-gaming terms to their signup offers.  Signup offer terms now state:

If we in our sole discretion determine that you have engaged in abuse, misuse, or gaming in connection with the welcome bonus offer in any way or that you intend to do so (for example, if you applied for one or more cards to obtain a welcome bonus offer (s) that we did not intend for you; if you cancel or downgrade your account within 12 months after acquiring it; or if you cancel or return purchases you made to meet the Threshold Amount), we may not credit Membership Rewards® to, we may freeze Membership Rewards® credited to, or we may take away Membership Rewards® from, your account. We may also cancel this Card account and other Card accounts you may have with us.

And in September we reported that Amex was actually enforcing their age-old terms against gift cards counting towards minimum spend requirements.  So far, we only know this to be true of gift cards purchased at Simon Malls, but it seems likely that they’ll spread the joy to other gift card markets.

And now, effective November 1st, Amex has updated the terms on their Membership Rewards cards to disallow abuse, misuse, or gaming in connection with earning or using points.

Amex has declared that they have sole discretion to determine if you’ve broken their rules.  If you have, they may take away your points, cancel your accounts, or temporarily suspend point earning or redeeming.

What is abuse, misuse, or gaming?

The definitions of these terms haven’t been spelled out.  Basically, Amex has declared that they will decide if you’ve done these things after you’ve done them, and that punishment will follow. They did give some hints in their anti gaming signup bonus language, though.  They gave the following examples:

…for example, if you applied for one or more cards to obtain a welcome bonus offer (s) that we did not intend for you; if you cancel or downgrade your account within 12 months after acquiring it; or if you cancel or return purchases you made to meet the Threshold Amount

In other words, with respect to signup offers, “abuse, misuse, or gaming” equates to any ways of obtaining a signup offer other than how they intended.  You should only use signup offers that are meant for you, you shouldn’t do anything “sneaky” to meet minimum spend requirements (such as buying gift cards or buying and returning items), and you shouldn’t cancel the card soon after getting the bonus.

If we apply similar logic, we can try to figure out the definition of “abuse, misuse, or gaming” in connection with earning or redeeming points.  Amex wants us to earn points through regular spend and to redeem points for ourselves.  I can then guess at the banned activities…

Abuse, misuse, or gaming when earning points

My educated guess is that Amex is on the lookout for the following activities with respect to earning points:

  • Large gift card purchases.
  • Frequent gift card purchases with vendors that trigger bonus categories.
  • Abnormally large purchases within bonus categories, especially if there’s any sign that there is some sort of purchase and return scheme going on.
  • Very large credit card spend that far exceeds a person’s apparent ability to pay.  My guess is that they will watch this more closely with personal cards than business cards since large business purchases are common and normal.
  • Earning points through Amex offers on many different authorized user cards.

As I learn about other examples, I’ll update this list.

Abuse, misuse, or gaming when redeeming points

My educated guess is that Amex is on the lookout for the following activities with respect to redeeming points:

  • Selling points.  Indicators of this may be frequent point transfers to many different authorized users’ frequent flier accounts, for example.
  • Buying airfare with the Business Platinum buy with points rebate and somehow getting the airfare refunded.

As I learn about other examples, I’ll update this list.

Analysis

In the last few years Amex has made their credit card lineup more and more competitive.  They’ve continued to offer great signup bonuses and they’ve added bonus categories to existing cards and introduced compelling new cards such as the Everyday Preferred and the Blue Business Plus.  With the latter, for the first time ever, we have have a card that earns 2 points per dollar for all spend (up to $50K per year), and those points are transferable to airline miles.  It’s an unbeatable combination.

Obviously I’m unhappy about the Amex war on gaming, but I get it.  Amex naturally wants those signup bonuses and card features to attract profitable new customers and to retain existing ones.  Customers who use them only for signup bonuses or only for bonus category spend are financial drains.  Amex quite reasonably wants to discourage that behavior.

I also can’t fault Amex for failing to spell out the definition of “abuse, misuse, or gaming.”  They know very well that if they did so, people would seek out and find loopholes.  What are the opportunities that Amex hasn’t banned?  Heck, I’ll admit it… I’d be working on that too.

Amex hasn’t yet applied anti-gaming rules for earning and spending points to their other cards (cash back cards or co-branded cards), but I’d guess that it’s just a matter of time.  We need to live within the new Amex reality if we want to continue to enjoy the benefits that their cards offer.

What to do

You can still sign up for Amex cards for the signup bonuses, but you need to be careful to meet spend requirements in ways that Amex won’t see as gaming.  Obvious options are to use the cards for all spend, and to prepay utilities and other bills where possible.  You can organize events and ask friends to pay you back.  You can pay for covered healthcare expenses and have the insurance company pay you back.  You can fund Kiva loans.  You can pay estimated federal taxesYou may be able to pay miscellaneous bills where credit cards aren’t usually accepted if Plastiq ever fixes their current Amex problem.

Once you’ve earned your signup bonus, ideally you will continue to use the card for everyday spend.  I don’t think that Amex will complain if you restrict a card’s use to it’s bonus categories — as long as it is regular spend.  If you buy lots of gift cards, especially within bonus categories, I doubt your account will last long.

If you don’t want to pay a card’s second annual fee, wait until the annual fee posts to your account and then call to see if they’ll give you a retention offer.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  If they offer you something that is worth the annual fee, then pay it.  Otherwise cancel or downgrade to a lower annual fee card.  If you want to do that latter, though, make sure that you’ve had the lower fee card before.  If not, you should look to signup new for that card so that you can get a new signup bonus before it’s too late.  Amex has a pretty strict “once per lifetime” rule with their cards, so you don’t want to blow your chance at a signup bonus by downgrading your card.

Keep in mind that Amex cards tend to have the best benefits around. Many are worth their annual fee for their benefits alone.

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