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Are American Express cards losing their luster?

Kelly Dilworth

I’ve been thinking pretty seriously lately about applying for my first American Express card after receiving some tempting offers. But with all the bad press the card issuer has been getting over the past few months, I’m starting to wonder: Are American Express cards as valuable as they used to be?

American Express continues to rank highly in customer satisfaction surveys. Until recently, it held the No. 1 spot for credit card customer satisfaction, according to J.D. Power and Associates’ annual Credit Card Satisfaction study. In 2014, the card issuer tied for first place with Discover card, which has been nipping at American Express’ heels for several years now.

Are American Express cards losing their luster?

The J.D. Powers and Associates survey looks at how satisfied cardholders are with their credit card terms and rewards, billing and dispute resolution, cardholder perks and more.

But according to new complaint data released by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, cardholders’ satisfaction with the once vaunted issuer may be starting to slip.

CreditCards.com recently reviewed nearly 14,000 complaints made to the CFPB last year and found that American Express earned more disputes over its handling of complaints than any other card issuer. CreditCards.com also found that American Express had the highest rate of complaints overall than any of the seven biggest issuers, including Capital One, Citi, U.S. Bank and Bank of America.

Meanwhile, the card issuer has been dealing with a number of bad breaks over the past few months, causing analysts to openly fret about its future. The popular warehouse club Costco recently decided to part ways with American Express after failing to come to an agreement over the future of its co-branded credit card — a major source of American Express’ revenue.

The U.S. Justice Department also dealt a blow after winning its antitrust lawsuit against the company. According to comments made by AmEx CEO Kenneth Chenault at Wednesday’s investors’ conference, the issuer is planning to seek a stay against the February ruling, which found that American Express violated antitrust laws.

If it fails to squash the ruling, American Express will no longer be able to bar merchants from encouraging their customers to use lower cost cards. That, in turn, could threaten American Express’ notoriously high transaction fees, which have helped subsidize its generous rewards programs.

One of the downsides of having an American Express card is that it’s not as widely accepted as other cards since merchants have to pay significantly higher fees to accept it. Many cardholders have put up with the inconvenience in exchange for the prestige and extra perks of having an American Express card. But if American Express is forced to lower fees in order to compete with other card issuers, will that threaten the sweeter rewards the card issuer is known for?

Already, the benefits of owning an American Express card have started to decline, according to The Associated Press’ Ken Sweet. For example, some airlines, such as United and American, have stopped giving VIP lounge access to American Express cardholders.

The card issuer also recently raised interest rates for a number of cardholders who were paying below-market APRs, and currently charges new cardholders a higher APR than comparable cards. For example, according to American Express spokeswoman Elizabeth Crosta, the lowest available rate on a new American Express card is currently 12.99 percent. The national average APR for low interest cards, by contrast, is 11.62 percent.

Annual fees are also going up on some cards, such as the issuers’ Gold line, making owning a premium American Express card even pricier.

That said, the pressure on American Express to attract new cardholders could mean that rewards will get better — at least in the near future — rather than worse, according to financial services firm Credit Suisse.

In just the past month, American Express announced it will soon offer double the rewards on restaurant purchases and better travel perks for American Gold cardholders, including a $100 travel credit for incidental airline expenses. It also announced last week an innovative loyalty program that allows participants to earn points even when they use a different payment method, such as cash or debit.

And even though American Express’ reputation has taken a hit in recent months, it still earns enough high marks from satisfied customers that applying for an American Express card doesn’t feel like much of a risk.

I haven’t decided yet whether or not I’ll apply for a card myself. It’s still too early to tell how recent events will influence American Express’ offers, so I may just wait a little while and see what comes in the mail.

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  • S B

    I completely agree. I have a credit rating of 807 and pay my bill on time and in full every month. I have been an American Express card holder since 1998 (that is 17 years with a card in good standing – never even carrying a balance). I have had the Gold card for over 10 years. Twice this year, I made my payment one day late and I was told my APR would be going from an already unreasonable 21% to 27.24%!!!!! I am not exaggerating about my creditworthiness.
    What are they getting away with charging people with bad credit. Heaven forbid I needed to actually put something on credit. I would never be able to get out of debt.
    Should ANYONE be paying nearly one third the cost of their purchases to cover themselves for a month or two. Does a corporation have the right to charge what the government does on income taxes. Remember we already pay that, plus the sales tax to purchase items, then this kind of penalty to borrow. It vaguely reminds me of robber barons and rings our as an example of what Pope Francis warns as the “tyranny” of “unfettered capitalism.”
    If they haven’t figured out how to compete with Millennials, which I am sure they haven’t because of their marketing mix, and are antagonizing Generation X and beyond, whose left to be a loyal customer.
    Information is too readily available online. As you can imagine, with a decent credit score, I get tons of credit card offers regularly. Why not switch, because when you are in one of the months in which you need the credit or are learning this information, no one wants to close the deal, even with credit like mine.
    This is the situation for many Americans. This is exploitation. This is not how banks should treat the tax paying citizens whose tax dollars went into the bailout – In 2008 American Express was one of the first to line up for $3.39 Billion in TARP Funds. WERE THEY CHARGED 30% Interest?!!!
    I think we need to take this to the hill!