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Chasing a 100,000 point bonus: My white whale

Yasmin Ghahremani

There is nothing like a sign-up bonus chase to make you feel like a criminal. I fell quickly. One day I was an upstanding, 750+ FICO scorer. The next, a shifty-eyed drugstore loiterer sharing the modi operandi of money launderers and kidney dealers. 

At the heart of my descent was the search for Vanilla Reload cards. As I explained in Part 1 of The Amazing $10k Race, Vanilla Reloads have been the key to generating spending for mileage lovers via a three-step transaction that involves the American Express Bluebird card. The process allows you to rack up points for big expenses such as mortgage or car payments, which you normally can’t put on a credit card.

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My goal: Spend $10,000 within three months to qualify for a 100,000-point sign-up bonus on my new Citi Executive AAdvantage card. It was largely dependent upon the Vanilla strategy.

But the cards are scarce. Until April 1, CVS was one of the few retailers that allowed me to buy Vanilla Reload cards with my AAdvantage card. Even then, the store imposed limits on how much I could buy each day — primarily because the cards can be used for all kinds of illicit shenanigans, such as the alleged laundering of funds from stolen credit cards by two New Jersey residents recently.

That’s apparently what prompted CVS to join the merchant mainstream in restricting Vanilla Reload purchases to cash-only from now on. My stomach sank when I heard about the policy change, but in a way, I’m relieved. The Vanilla Reload hunt was a time-consuming challenge tinged with humiliation.

Vanilla Reloads: my
white whale

I was competing with not only grifters and drug dealers to buy the cards, but with thousands of other reward-stalking credit card holders. As I learned
from the experts
, veteran VR seekers would not only hit the CVS as soon as the Vanillas were stocked, they’d hoard the cards by hiding them behind other prepaid or gift cards – or even other merchandise – so that they could forage them out the next day when the racks were emptied. These weren’t card sharks; they were card squirrels.

Armed with this knowledge, I went to my local CVS and scoured the gift card racks for the desired booty. No luck. Time to check behind random products. Shampoo? Nope. Aspirin? Nothing but dust. A sales associate wandered by and paused. “I am not a criminal!” I wanted to declare as I fished around behind the Brillo pads like a lunatic.

Instead, I smiled and told her I was looking for Vanilla Reload cards. They were sold out but I did find out the day and time they are usually restocked.

Back I went five days later at 4 p.m. I saw a thick stack of them hanging by the register and my heart skipped a beat. “Just act natural,” I told myself. “Let them know you’re just an innocent person trying to earn an honest travel reward – heh, heh – and who isn’t? We’re all in this together, right?” But the manager rang me up coolly – weary, I imagine, of we, the washed and unwashed who were all trying to beat the system somehow.

He took my driver’s license number and tapped away at his terminal while I waited sweaty-palmed. The sale went through! Cards in hand, I walked out into the cool afternoon breeze. I swear I saw a rainbow.

That feeling didn’t last long. The next week I got to the CVS at 6 p.m. and the Vanillas were already gone. An anxious multicity search began. I tried every CVS I came across, as well as gas stations and convenience stores. Upon the advice of Cashing In columnist Tony Mecia, I hit the CVS on the hard side of town (on the premise that this is a middle-class game). It was sold out, too. I even peppered a weekend road trip with pit stops in rural burghs, finally scoring some Vanilla Reloads in a college town on a Sunday night.

The next challenge was storing them. As any Breaking Baddy can tell you, it’s not safe walking around with thousands of dollars in cash – or in my case, cash proxy. I stashed most of the VR cards in my safety deposit box, and exited the bank with a cool worthy of Walter White.

Time to get my reload on
Other than being a little time-consuming, loading the Bluebird card is not bad. After getting a temporary card at Wal-Mart, I set up my account online and waited 10 days for the permanent card to arrive. Then I scratched the code numbers off the back of a couple of Vanilla Reload cards, went to VanillaReload.com and entered the information from the VR and my Bluebird account. The money appeared in my Bluebird account instantly.

Spending, on the other hand, has been like a walk back in time to 1999. I put a stop on automatic payments for several bills, then paid them through my online Bluebird account or with Bluebird checks. Yeah, checks – I know, right? You have to pre-authorize the checks online, listing the recipient’s name and amount.

I even found I could pay my tax bill with one of those checks, but because the amount is more than $2,000 I had to wait a day for AmEx to consider my request and email me back an authorization code. There is truly no respect in this game.

Here’s the surprising thing, though. During this time, I hit my $10,000 spending target. The high of seeing those 100,000 AAdvantage points show up in my account just about made up for all the indignities and hassles of the previous weeks. I fear I may be addicted.

After all, I will get 10,000 elite-qualifying miles if I spend $40,000 on the card within the first year. I recently lost the gold-level frequent flier status I had received as a one-year perk with a different credit card and let me tell you, once you’ve been allowed to pick the best seats and board with the rest of the elites, you don’t want to go back. There are other, less simple, ways of racking up spending that I’m seriously considering: gift cards, Amazon payments, pre-paying certain bills.

So, respect? I may have to crawl through some shadowy deals to get those elite miles, but no one has to know that when I’m flashing my gold flier status.

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