The first credit card I ever obtained
was an American Express, back in 1981. I was subsequently one of
their first founding members of their Gold Card program when it was
launched in New Zealand in 1982, and after moving to the US, accepted
their invitation to have a Platinum Card back when that was a big deal.
These days I've downgraded my status
to plain Green Card membership, and rarely use the card any more.
My Alaska Airlines Visa card gives me better mileage benefits. But
my Amex card is still something I look upon fondly.
So imagine my feelings of
disappointment and betrayal when you read my American Express horror
Part One - A Mysterious Phone Call
I was traveling for a month, primarily in
Russia, during October 2003.
While away, I received a message on my
home phone asking me to call an (800) number during certain hours only about
my American Express card. With the eleven hours time zone difference,
this was not easy to do, and traveling in Russia made calling an (800)
number in the US even more difficult (generally you can only call US 800
numbers from within the US, not from other countries).
I ended up calling, at my cost, the
regular American Express 24 hour Customer Service line and asked them what
was up. They couldn't tell me. They said that only the 'account
services' people could tell me, and that they didn't work 24 hours.
They said they could see that the 'account services' people were trying to
contact me, but they could not see what was the reason for the contact.
I asked them to give a message to their
account services people telling them that I'd be out of town through the end
of October, and suggesting that the account services people send me an email
if they had any issues. The customer services people agreed to do
I didn't receive any email messages, and
nothing further happened, so I forgot all about it, imagining it to be
nothing more than another one of the way-too-many telemarketing calls I get
Part Two - An Unexpected Letter
I was opening my mail on Friday evening, a
couple of days after returning home. Two letters from American Express
were in the pile. I opened them, and each said the same thing - one
about my Green Card and one about my Blue Card. Each said the same
We have an important business matter to
discuss with you concerning your American Express account(s). We have
been unable to reach you by telephone and need to speak with you to update
As a result, new charges will be declined
on the account(s) listed above.
I couldn't believe my eyes. Some
mysterious 'important business matter' and a trivial seeming need to 'update
our records' meant that Amex - my trusted credit card partner for 22 years -
had switched off both my accounts without warning, without telling me???
The letter then gave contact details, but,
of course, at 7.15pm on a Friday night, their credit department was closed
and not taking calls.
So I called the '24 hour customer service'
number on the back of my card and asked for help.
Part Three - A Unique Definition of 'Customer
The person I spoke to in Customer Service
confirmed that my Amex account was current, and in good standing, and that
there were no suspicious charges or anything unusual at all.
But the person also confirmed that I could
no longer use my card to place charges - it had been switched off by the
other department. They did not know and could not find out why this
So, I asked them to remove the block on my
card so I could use it again, being as how it was not overdue, there was no
suspicious activity, and I was a cardmember of 22 years in good standing.
The person said that they could not (would
not) do that. Only the other department could do this.
I pointed out that the other department
was closed. I said I was calling the 24 hour Customer Service number
with a bona fide customer service problem, and that I expected it to be
The woman disagreed, and said that this
was not a customer service issue. It was an 'account services' issue,
not a customer service issue.
I told her this was the most ridiculous
statement I had ever heard - was she truly telling me that turning off a
good member's account for no apparent reason whatsoever was not a customer
service issue! She saw nothing stupid about that.
So I asked to speak to a supervisor who,
alas, confirmed everything the previous person said. For no apparent
reason, and with no warning, and with no ability to appeal or resolve the
problem, my account had been switched off. All I could do was wait
until the account services department opened on Saturday - there was no-one
else, anywhere else, that could/would help me!
American Express' "24 hour Customer
Service" was exposed as a useless myth.
Part Four - The Mystery Revealed
The next day, I spoke to someone in the
special department, who told me that a $86 payment I'd made on my Blue Card
had bounced. Because of that, and their inability to contact me, they
switched off both my unpaid Blue account and my paid, current, Green
Now, dear reader, you might be thinking
that I'm a no good flake with an empty bank account and writing worthless
checks, and that I should have known my check bounced.
At all relevant times, I had at least a
five figure balance in my check account, and, more to the point, I did not
write a check, but instead made an electronic payment online through the
I pay my Amex accounts online through
their website every month, and have never had problems before. And I
never received any notification from American Express that there was a
problem with my $86.25 payment. No email, no normal mail, and no phone
message. Just a mysterious 'call us' message and then a more
mysterious letter referring to an 'important business matter'.
I asked the girl why they didn't send me
an email. She said 'we did send you an email'. Then she said
'Oh, no, we didn't'.
She agreed that they had received a note
from the Customer Service people when I called from Russia, and then said
'we can't send you an email because we don't have your email address'.
That is, alas, a complete lie, because I
get emails from Amex every month. She could not explain how it was
that they send me email without having my email address!
There was also no explanation for how the
electronic payment had failed to be processed.
She verified my correct bank account
information, muttered something about 'oh, that was the problem', then took a payment by phone for the
outstanding balance and said that she was immediately re-activating my two
accounts. Six hours later, I went to buy some goods at Costco, and my
Green card still was being declined.
Part Five - A Further Surprise
Ten days later, American Express
called again. The payment by phone that the woman had taken from
me ten days before bounced back from the bank due to the wrong account
number being used again. It seems that they had somehow keyed in
the account number incorrectly, again!
I told the Amex rep my correct bank
account number, yet again, and she confirmed it was the same as the
number they already had on file for my green card payments, but
different from the (incorrect) number they had for my blue card.
She corrected it, and then asked for the four digit security number on
my blue card before she would accept another pay by phone from me.
I put her on hold and went to get my card. Two minutes later, when
I returned, there was a different person at the other end of the line,
who then refused to accept my pay by phone! He suggested I should
send the money to them via Western Union or via Fedex!!! He said
because there had been two payments 'bounced' I was no longer allowed to
make electronic payments by phone.
I pointed out that these payment
problems were American Express' fault, not mine. He said 'I'm not
here to argue with you, I'm just telling you what your choices are'.
I asked to speak to a supervisor, and after asking repeatedly, he agreed
to put me through to a supervisor.
After waiting on hold, he then
reappeared and said 'I'm not able to find a supervisor, can I have
someone call you back'! This was the middle of the day, and there
wasn't a single supervisor in American Express available to resolve my
Part Six - Bad News from a Supervisor
Six hours later, a supervisor called
and said that he was unable to override the system's automatic
cancellation of my ability to make electronic payments. He also
said that both my cards had been switched off again, and will remain off
until they receive payment. So, I found myself back at square one
- or, actually, at square minus one, because not only were my cards
switched off again, but I could not now instantly resolve the matter by
making an electronic payment!
At my request, he agreed to transfer
me to a 'systems analyst' in a different department who would 'open an
investigation' into the situation.
Part Seven - Worse News
After the obligatory wait on hold, I
found myself in a three way conversation with two supervisors.
They told me that an investigation into the matter - which they freely
admitted was their fault - would take 6 to 8 weeks to resolve. I
asked, incredulously - 'You've said it is your fault, what now needs to
be done for the balance of the 6-8 weeks?'
They had no answer to this, and merely
said they'd try and expedite it as much as possible.
The Only Possible Solution
I told them to cancel my account.
I said I was cutting up my card, and would send them a check to close
out the $86.25 balance. Yes - don't forget - this whole massive
problem all boils down to a trivial $86.25 - an amount that, in the
'good old days', American Express would simply write off to goodwill
rather than bother about.
This pleased them, and we concluded
the call, with the two supervisors presumably happy that they had
resolved their problem. Sure, they've also lost a customer that
had been with them for 22 years; a customer who on occasion would charge
as much as $20,000 a month onto his cards, and a customer who now is
determined to spread the word of this outrageous mistreatment as far and
wide as possible. But - hey, they've solved their $86.25 problem,
and that is presumably much more important than either my past value or
my future value to them as a customer.
American Express's Eight Failures
Firstly, it somehow allowed my payment to
Secondly, it did not then send me an
automatic email advising me.
Thirdly, it did not then send a written
advice to me advising of what had gone wrong, so I could easily fix the
Fourthly, it did not telephone me and
leave a sensible message that I could understand and action
Fifthly, its left hand (Customer Service)
did not know what its right hand (Account Service) was doing so that when I
called back from Russia, Customer Service could not help me
Sixthly, its Account Service department is
not open 24 hours
Seventhly, although advised by Customer
Service that I was responding to their calls, but was traveling
internationally, and although requested by Customer Service to send me an
email, Account Service did not do either, and just unilaterally turned off
both my accounts and then wrote me a letter without telling me why they had
Eighthly, when I called Customer Service
saying 'why is my account switched off and please switch it on again' they
were unable to answer my question or to help me resolve the problem (imagine
if I was trying to check out of a hotel, or to buy an emergency plane
To summarize, due to some strange computer
quirk, my payment fell out of their system. They avoided all possible
ways of correcting the situation, choosing instead to switch off both my
Tell David your opinion.
Send him an Email -
published 8 Nov 2003, last update
28 Nov 2012
Copyright 2003 by David M
You may freely reproduce
or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.