Danger - Your Amex Card Might Be Declined


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A quick update, 1/7/2020

This page was published in March 2003.  The fact you're reading it suggests that you too have had an Amex problem, or are researching their poor customer service record.

You might be interested to know that currently Google's Analytics shows it to be the 12th most popular page, out of over 2000 pages, on my website.

That would suggest that Amex remains challenged when it comes to customer service.  Oh well, misery loves company!
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 story.

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 that.

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 from Amex.

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 thing :

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 our records.

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 Service'

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 was done.

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 immediately resolved.

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 account.

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.

Not so!

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 Amex website.

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 problem?

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 be misprocessed.

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 problem

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 done this

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 ticket!).

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 Amex accounts.

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Originally published 8 Nov 2003, last update 30 May 2021
Copyright 2003 by David M Rowell.
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.