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Published: Monday, 11/18/2013 - Updated: 10 months ago

COMMENTARY

Banking on a credit-card company’s promises not a sure thing

BY THOMAS WALTON
BLADE COLUMNIST
Walton Walton
THE BLADE/LORI KING Enlarge | Buy This Photo

I had a run-in with corporate America recently, and I found it not only frustrating and upsetting, but enlightening and instructive. Now that I’ve cooled down, perhaps I can share the story rationally and calmly.

First, the background. A few years ago, I acquired a credit card that allowed me to accrue airline miles I could use on the airline of my choice, whenever I wanted. No restrictions. No blackout dates. As new retirees, we liked the idea.

Indeed, the miles piled up quickly. By using the new card for major purchases — that means a tank of gasoline on up — we were amazed how swiftly we accumulated enough miles to fly free. It helped that the credit-card company, at the time of enrollment, pledged to pay us double miles — two miles for every dollar spent — for all purchases in the travel and entertainment field.

Hotels and motels, restaurants, movies, car rentals, Mud Hens tickets, even bowling qualified for the double credit. Because we like eating out, enjoy taking in a ballgame, and stay in hotels and motels when we travel, it seemed like a good package.

Then one day, I did something I hadn’t done since signing up. I examined my monthly statement of mileage credit. I was surprised to discover that expenses that by any reasonable person’s definition would qualify for double credit were only given single credit.

I called. The credit-card people checked. They made it right. OK, I figured, they’d made an honest error.

Trouble is, it kept happening.

They said AAA was in the automotive category, not travel. I explained that AAA also runs travel agencies and the charge was for air tickets, not new brakes. They relented.

On another occasion, they had to be convinced that a Disney World hotel, which we visited with our grandchildren, was in fact a hotel. Talk about living in Fantasyland. If they can’t figure out that Disney World qualifies as entertainment, they need to get out more.

Another time, they said a prominent national hotel chain didn’t qualify for double credit because the credit-card company could not be sure who owned the chain. I’m not making this up.

I totaled it up, and the adjustments the company grudgingly made after my many calls added a significant amount of miles — roughly 10,000 of them — to my account.

A final irony: The company contends that its mileage program is free of hassles. They even put it right on the card. As you can guess, I beg to differ.

The company now offers a new card that pays two miles for every dollar spent, regardless of what was purchased. Where was that one when I needed it?

Apparently I have worn out my welcome among the folks who staff the company’s “customer service” phone bank. When I called to correct the latest deficiency, the company’s rep excused himself to go talk to his supervisor. This happens every phone call; it’s part of the script.

But this time he came back on the line to say that henceforth, there would be no further adjustments to my mileage credit. The category codes are what they are. Evidently, he and his supervisor wish I would just go away.

I expressed concern that a lot of other card holders, customers who might not be as attentive to the monthly statements as I had been, are shortchanged as well and never know it. The gentleman on the other end did not disagree.

I think I’ve figured out why his company doesn’t care if it loses me as a customer. You see, one of the promises we made ourselves when we retired was a pledge never to charge more than we could afford to pay off completely before interest charges kick in.

We’ve been determined to pay as we go. In other words, the credit-card company was making nothing from us. Never was a penny of interest charged. Never was a late fee necessary. Nothing. For being responsible and protecting my bottom line, I was not helping theirs. That tells you all you need to know to understand why easy credit is such a dangerous thing.

One of these days, we’ll cash in our miles, take a nice trip, and at some point, on some beach, we’ll cut up their card into small pieces and mash them into the sand.

I’m pretty sure the credit-card company will be as relieved as we are.

Thomas Walton is the retired editor and vice president of The Blade. His column appears every other Monday. His commentary, “Life As We Know It,” can be heard Mondays at 5:44 p.m. on WGTE-FM 91.

Contact him at:twalton@theblade.com



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