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Protecting yourself, Rewards

Complaining to the right place wins argument with bank

Fred Williams

Griping to my credit card didn’t get me anywhere until I filed a complaint with the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

That got me $400 — plus the pleasure of seeing a bank implicitly admit it was wrong.

We write about the CFPB a lot, including its consumer complaint service. When I thought my travel card stiffed me on a promised reward, I got a chance to see the complaint process in action.

The consumer protection bureau started hearing gripes about credit cards in December 2011. Since then it has heard more than 45,000 beefs about cards, while also opening its complaint window to grousing about mortgages, debt collection, student loans and other financial sore spots.

Rather than just tallying the complaints, the consumer bureau gets in the middle and mediates. It sends the gripe to the company, confirms that you’re a customer, and logs the outcome. If the card relents and fixes your problem, that goes down on its record for all to see. If they stiff you, that, too, becomes public.

My problem started back in May 2014 when I applied for a Travelocity American Express card, backed by Barclaycard US. Rack up 20,000 points and get a $400 statement credit, the promotion urged. Since I use Travelocity anyway, it seemed like a no-brainer — especially since I would get 10,000 points just for signing up, putting me halfway to the reward.

Nine months later I had 20,000 points, after booking trips big and small through the online travel agent. The $400 credit was not easy to get; it was only available on a single purchase of at least that amount on Travelocity. When I booked a round-trip flight to Ohio that cost $419, I thought I would finally collect the reward.

But on my statement, the transaction I had made with a single click was split into two pieces, one for each leg of the trip. Instead of a $400 credit, my 20,000 points were eligible for only $240.

“Please keep in mind that it is the merchant who submits the charges to your account,” Barclaycard customer service explained in written response to my complaint. “We do not have control if the merchant will divide the charges that will be posted.”

My reply might have been a little snarky. The merchant was Barclaycard’s partner Travelocity, whose name was emblazoned on the card, I pointed out. It seemed awfully convenient for the card issuer to duck responsibility for its partner’s action, especially when that action slashed the value of my points.

Feeling I was in the right, I went to the consumer bureau’s complaint portal and filed my protest, attaching statements that showed my point total. In two weeks I got a call from the president’s office at Barclaycard. I was all set to launch into my argument, but there was no need. The representative — it wasn’t Barclays Group Chief Executive Antony Jenkins himself — said she could see that I made a single transaction to book the trip. A $400 credit posted to my account the next day.

The squeaky wheel gets the grease all right, but the lessons from the episode go further than that. Clearly, squeaking to the consumer regulator was more effective than the bank, although complaining to customer service was a logical first step.

Beyond that, companies’ complaint records with the CFPB may be a useful thing to consider when you’re thinking about a new card. After all, promises of bonus points or other lures aren’t worth much if the card tricks you out of them. In CreditCards.com’s analysis of CFPB complaint data, Barclaycard has one of the lowest complaint rates, and one of better records of fixing disputes. With other, tougher cards, my protest might have hit a brick wall.

The consumer bureau wants to make its complaint database more useful by adding consumers’ stories to the bare data now available. The idea draws applause from consumer advocates and opposition from the banking lobby. 

For me, the dispute was also a lesson about the real costs of chasing rewards. The $400 credit amounts to about 7.5 percent payback of my card spending. Now that my sign-up bonus is used up, I can expect about 3 percent back in the future. If, that is, I book every flight, hotel room and rental car through Travelocity. This turns a card that should be a convenience into a burden. Sometimes on a road trip, you just want to pull into a hotel, pull out your card and sleep.

Then after months of loyalty, you have to push the company to keep its promise? For me, being a reward seeker wasn’t worth the hassle.

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