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Travel troubleshooter: Where are my credit-card points?

  • Article by: CHRISTOPHER ELLIOTT
  • June 29, 2013 - 3:12 PM

Q: I recently applied and received a co-branded credit card from Chase and AARP. The card had an introductory offer of 5 percent (cash back) for the first six months of card usage. I used the card and earned 201,780 points. Every single charge was legitimate, and I have receipts.

This week, I logged into my online account to find my account was closed and I would not be getting the points accrued in the last fiscal month of activity. I called Chase and they told me because the card was not “used as intended” they had closed my account.

I believe Chase closed the account so they would not have to pay 201,000 points, which are worth about $2,000. I am considering taking this to court. Can you help me?

A: Affinity cards like the one you used are a popular way to earn miles and points quickly. But you have to read the fine print before you take advantage of an offer: There’s lot of fine print that can foil your efforts.

One of the standard program rules that most cardholders aren’t aware of is that the points don’t belong to you, strictly speaking. They’re the property of the company issuing the card. Also, the contract says the company can change the rules whenever it wants to and for whatever reason.

When it comes to affinity cards, a bank will pay a travel company a penny or less per mile but will get a dollar or more of your purchase in exchange. That benefits the card issuer and, to a lesser extent, you. But when you figure out a way to game the system — which it looks as if you did — then the company can simply pull the plug on your point-collecting efforts.

It shouldn’t be allowed to do that. But one reason the courts have been so reluctant to step in and tell a credit card company that it can’t is that these programs are so complicated, only a select few experts can make sense of them. So, while you may have been able to sue Chase and AARP, it wouldn’t have set any precedents. You’d just be another cardholder who played the game and lost and persuaded a court to intervene.

I contacted Chase on your behalf. It declined to comment on your case, but contacted you and cut you a check for $2,400, the approximate value of the points you lost.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. Read more tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at chris@elliott.org.

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