Saturday, January 5, 2008

Come Again, American Express?

I have been traveling a quite bit lately for work and at my office we don't use corporate cards. So to make finances a little easier, I started using a "business-only" card in October which would generally be used for only work-related expenses.

Amex Gold Card

I used an American Express Gold card for this because it had no pre-set spending limit (some business trips can get pricey) and it had excellent sign up rewards. The first two trips went well and I was happy with my new card. However, during a longer trip in December I ran into a snag. Here's how I explained the problem in a letter to American Express after the incident:
Customer Service,

I am writing to bring a recent incident to your attention. I signed up for an American Express Gold card with no preset spending limit in October. I had several business trips planned and had intended to use this business card for all of them.

The card worked fine for my first trip during the last week in November. I called customer service about this time to ask about the spending limit as I was planning to incur expenses in excess of $7000. These expenses were primarily conference fees (two charges of $2875) and other travel expenses. I was told that my card had no preset spending limit and these charges would all go through.

The first half of the trip went well. However, on December 5, SAP attempted to clear the second $2875 charge which was declined. I called customer service and asked why the charge had been declined. I was told that even though my account does not have a preset spending limit, it does in fact have a preset spending limit. I inquired further (I was very confused) and was told that my credit limit would increase as a steady payment history was established. I asked how this was different than any other credit card and the representative maintained that even though there is a threshold over which I cannot spend, I do not have a spending limit.

The representative offered to make a one-time exception and authorize the $2875 charge. I asked if all my subsequent travel expenses would then be declined because I would be over my "limit." She acknowledged that, yes, any further charges would be declined. I clearly stated that I did not want the large transaction approved since it would mean all subsequent transactions no matter how small would be declined. The representative noted my account and we disconnected.

I then contacted SAP to provide a different card for the $2875 charge only to be told that the transaction had since cleared on my Amex card! Hoping that my spending ability had been increased, I checked the website and found that my card was now maxed out and I was not authorized to make additional charges. When I attempted to call customer service to discuss this, I was told that because of a computer glitch or maintenance, no one would be able to help me for two hours and to try back later.

When I first received the card I was very impressed with your prompt and friendly customer service. However, the incident on December 5 caused a great deal of frustration and embarrassment. I don't understand how you can claim my card has no limit when it clearly does have a limit. I also do not understand why I was first told that charges in excess of $7000 would not be a problem when it is now clear to me that I have a limit around $5000.

Michael Haren

Obviously by this point the trip was over and there really wasn't anything American Express could do, I just wanted some clarification on the whole limit/no-limit thing. It gets so much better with their response:
Dear Michael Haren:

Thank you for your e-mail.

Please accept my sincere apology towards the inconvenience this matter has caused you. Please be advised that your Card product is a charge Card product and does not have a credit limit or a preset spending limit.

However, our no pre-set spending limit does not provide unlimited credit to our Cardmembers. Purchases are approved based on a Cardmember's account history (including spending and payment history), credit record and personal resources.

However, I have forwarded your recent experience to the concerned department and have explained the entire situation. They may contact you if required. Additionally, please be advised that as of 01/02/08, the charges on your Card are getting approved. Please be assured that all future charges will be approved as long as your Card is in good standing.

I understand that my apology cannot compensate the loss you have gone through and this incident is regrettable you us.


R. Nigam
Email Servicing Team
American Express Interactive Services

This left me thoroughly confused. When I spoke to the representative, she clearly indicated that my card had a fixed limit beyond which charges would not be approved. But now I have R. Nigam playing an interesting word game by dancing around the "limit", "pre-set spending limit", and "unlimited". I followed up for some clarification:
Mr. Nigam,

Thank you for your kind and thoughtful response. I'm afraid that I am still unclear as to the definitions involved here and am hopeful that you can clear up any misunderstanding.

As one of my coworker's noted, we were under the impression that "...does not have a credit limit..." and "...does not provide unlimited credit..." were opposites. I don't understand how I can have both no credit limit and at the same time have a credit limit. I did realized that when I was offered a card with no credit limit that there would be some sort of limit--there is only so much money in the world, after all--but I did not expect the limit to be so low and so inflexible. When I called after the transaction had been declined, I expected the agent to review my history and say something like, "no problem, we now see that this isn't fraud as you previously reported that you'd be making these charges. I'll increase your limit to $x to cover the rest of your trip."

Instead, we played the same game you and I are playing with the phrase "no pre-set spending limit".

I am planning a business trip next week to Georgia and would like to know what limits are in place on my account. If my account does not have a limit, at what dollar amount might I experience problems with my card?

Aha, I thought, this will force their hand on the issue and I will know once and for all what is going on. Apparantly I'm not as clever as I thought:
Please be advised that basis your inquiry, I contacted our Account Services Department on your behalf today, since this information can be passed on by this department only. However, due to the Cardmembers privacy and security concerns, they would like to speak with you directly. You may contact them at : 1-800-238-8091. 24 hours a day - 7 days a week.

I hope you find this information helpful and it was my pleasure to assist you.


R. Nigam
Email Servicing Team
American Express Interactive Services

Well played, Mr. Nigam. Not to be outdone, I actually followed his advice. The woman I spoke with was incredibly friendly when she gave me the usual no pre-set spending limit bologna. I explained that I needed to know what my limit was because I was taking another trip soon and wanted to stay under it. She then helpfully told me that my limit is currently $7000. Not able to leave well-enough alone, however, she pleasantly added that if I use a significant amount of that any pay it back, next month my limit will be higher--since it's not pre-set. Good grief.

Here's what I've concluded from all this:

  • The "no pre-set spending limit" claim is apparently substantiated by increasing (or decreasing?) your limit each month

  • It's fairly tricky to get someone to tell you what your actual limit is

  • Amex customer service reps have been well trained on how to handle callers like me who are confused about this limit business

  • Amex customer service reps are unbelieveably nice. I have spoken to them on three separate occasions and have exchanged a few emails. In all cases I was blown away with how great their service was (except of course for dancing around this bizarre corporate policy)

  • It's all harder than it needs to be

  • This isn't much different than any other credit card

If you're still with me, there you have it. The scariest part of all this is that I'm starting to understand their side of it. Ridiculous.