Amex ratchets up their war on gaming with wave of shutdowns


a group of soldiers with guns and dice

Last week, Reddit was aflame with reports of Amex shutting down accounts.  While account shutdowns have long been common with other issuers, this hasn’t been Amex’s primary approach in the past.  For many years, they temporarily froze accounts in order to put them through financial review.  If the cardholder came out of the financial review successfully, their accounts were fully restored.  More recently, we’ve seen Amex clawing back points that they decided were earned through “gaming”.  Now, Amex has taken enforcement to the next level with complete account shutdowns.  Fortunately, they’ve allowed those shut down to transfer out their Membership Rewards points by calling in.

Who was targeted?

TNSepta, on Reddit, has done an amazing job in collecting and analyzing data from those who were shutdown and those who were not.  To-date, TNSepta’s analysis suggests that those targeted for shutdown were likely to have either or both of these risk factors:

  • Self refer (e.g. did they earn points by referring themselves to a new Amex credit card?)
  • Multiple of same card (e.g. do they have more than one of the exact same Amex credit card?)

In reading through the shutdown thread (found here), it looks to me like some of those who were shutdown but didn’t self refer reported that they had played “two player mode” by doing multiple spouse referrals.  I don’t take this as evidence that this is a risk factor, but it’s something to keep in mind.

What else do we know?

A comment on Doctor of Credit’s post about Amex shutdowns grabbed my attention.  While I don’t have proof that this is legitimate, I find it convincing.  This is from someone with the handle RAT Poison (FYI: “RAT” is the Amex Rewards Abuse Team):

I won’t say why or how, but I have insider info from RAT on what’s behind all this. This shutdown is part of a series of upcoming shutdowns. This week’s was a beta test for a new machine learning model specifically designed to target churning activity through unsupervised learning. Amex data scientists are improving an evolving neural network model that identifies churning behavior as it happens, and then assigns risk scores that factor in to anti bust-out or fraud scores. They’re treated the same, those all have different scores but their values affect your overall risk/reward score for Amex. If that overall score reaches a certain threshold (which they’re still experimenting with what exactly it will be), you will get shut down. What they’re doing is based on the same ML models that are used at Amex for AML and fraud prevention. The shutdowns will happen in small waves because one giant hit would be a massive drain on resources and disruption to their overall business, including drawing negative public attention outside of the churning community. That would scare people who are profitable but think they’re winning. They are also incrementing shutdown waves because of the resource usage it takes to identify accounts and assign a score based on the new indicated risk factors. When shutdowns are triggered, they begin combing through the new dataset. Right now, the model only looks back two years.

The clawbacks on self-referrals were a pilot program to this week’s events, not an entirety separate event. The same model that identified self-referrers was used for these shutdowns.

I’ll report back when I hear more info.

RAT Poison adds:

Also, I should add that if you had self-referrals clawed back, you’re already in the main data set. Those who were hit by the clawback were flagged as the highest priority for the model to comb through because of the strong correlation to proven churning/gaming behavior. Self-referrals were like a litmus test for who will be the low-hanging fruit for them to cut. As they tune the model to identify more positive activity correlations with churning, it will get more specific. Combing through level 3 data will become more prevalent in identifying churners, especially true if you have transactions from GCM and other obvious sites in your transaction history. If you were hit in the clawback but weren’t shut down this time, be cautious that you’re in their crosshairs. From what I’ve learned about the model, the inferred course of action here to avoid a shutdown is to not do anything with Amex except organic spend on your existing cards. Don’t carry a balance, no more MS, and no new cards. Keep in mind that the anti-churning model is fundamentally based on the neural architecture of their anti-fraud model.

PS I’ve read many comments loosly speculating about what RAT is. RAT isn’t a bunch of guys in India who are manually combing through the accounts with high MR balances, or checking referral sources for validity, etc.. This isn’t true. “RAT” is two data science and machine learning engineers in Phoenix who transitioned from the Amex fraud prevention team. There are two other engineers who have shared responsibilities with RAT and other anti-fraud teams.

And RAT Poison says that the Hilton Aspire no-fee link was unrelated:

The Hilton Aspire no AF link had absolutely nothing to do with these shutdowns. It’s a pure coincidence. The portfolio of recommended accounts to be shut down was sent off for approval more than a week ago. RAT doesn’t shut down accounts. They provide tranches of customer accounts suspected of abuse – along with correlating data. Those tranches go to evaluation from non-engineering management; who are the decision makers on shutting down a tranch of accounts or enacting other penalties. This is new to them and it’s somewhat uncharted territory, the speculations on here and on Reddit that they’re winging it are accurate. Their plan is to cut losses and effectively disable Amex churning first, then deal with the fallout afterwards. They’re legally within their rights so shutdown approvals are not made on a legal basis.

Summary of RAT Poison’s comments

Here’s my summary of the above:

  • The RAT team is using a machine learning model designed to identify gaming behavior
  • This first set of shutdowns was a pilot program.
  • Expect to see more shutdowns come in waves
  • If you had self-referrals clawed back you are already a person of interest
  • The model currently only looks back 2 years (so if you did lots of “gaming” more than 2 years ago, that shouldn’t affect you now)
  • Soon they will enhance the models to inspect level 3 data (e.g. the individual items you purchased, not just the store and overall purchase amount).
  • Beware of purchases made with obvious gift card sellers like Gift Card Mall or

And RAT Poison suggests that if you are likely to be a person of interest to them, you may be able to avoid getting shut down by doing the following:

  • Use your Amex cards only for organic spend.  Do not manufacture spend.
  • Don’t carry a balance
  • Don’t sign up for new Amex cards

A summary of risky behavior

Based on the data collected through Reddit, along with the comments from RAT Poison, we can conclude that the following behaviors may get you flagged by Amex for potential shutdown:

  • Referring yourself to new Amex credit cards
  • Holding multiple of the same Amex credit cards
  • Buying gift cards from obvious gift card sellers like Gift Card Mall and
  • Future: Buying gift cards from stores that supply level 3 data to Amex

What should you do?

If you find that you’ve been shut down: Call Amex immediately to use up your Membership Rewards points.  If you have the Schwab Platinum card, you should be able to cash out your points for 1.25 cents each.  Alternatively, transfer points to an airline partner.  You can find a list of Amex transfer partners, including notes about each one, and a list of current transfer bonuses, by clicking here.

If you have previously had points clawed back due to self-referring: Consider transferring out your Membership Rewards points now, especially if there’s a transfer bonus that appeals to you.  It may be too late to avoid shut downs, but it might help to avoid all “gaming” activity on your Amex cards.

If you have self-referred in the past, but didn’t have points clawed back: It seems likely that you can avoid a shut down by avoiding all “gaming” behavior going forward.

If you have multiple of the same exact Amex cards: It seems likely that you can avoid a shut down by avoiding all “gaming” behavior going forward.

Others: Avoid obvious “gaming” behavior

How to avoid “gaming” behavior

To stay off of Amex’s radar for shut downs, these steps may help:

  • Do not refer yourself for new Amex cards.
    • Extra cautious: Do not refer family members in the same household and do not accept referrals from those in your same household.
  • Do not sign up for Amex cards that you’ve had before.
  • Do not sign up for Amex cards using “special links” (e.g. when a link is found to a special offer, but it’s unclear where that link came from or whether you should really be eligible for the offer)
    • Extra cautious: Don’t sign up for any new cards at all.
  • Do not buy gift cards from Simon Mall, Gift Card Mall,, or any other merchant that is obviously primarily a gift card seller.
    • Extra Cautious: Don’t buy gift cards in order to earn bonus points (e.g. don’t use Amex Gold to buy gift cards at US grocery stores)
    • Extra Extra cautious: Don’t buy gift cards at all with Amex credit cards
  • Do not cycle your credit limit.  E.g. do not run up your credit mid-cycle, pay it off, then run up your credit again multiple times.
  • Pay your credit card bill in full each month.
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“Don’t carry a balance, no more MS, and no new cards”

What is MS in the above statement from the article? Thanks.

Jo p

It’s alarming that the target number of shut downs is so massive that Amex doesn’t want to do it all at once because it would drain resources and potentially have a backlash from consumers.

[…] recent reports of Amex shutdowns on Reddit as well as Flyertalk.  Frequent Miler blog also has a post with a good summary of what’s happening. In a nutshell, it appears that self-referrals are the culprit and the trigger for the shutdowns. […]

[…] Miler wrote an interesting article about how American Express’ recent account shutdowns were only the beginning of an AI-driven progression of their Rewards Abuse Team (RAT) program. We’ve taken it slow and steady with AMEX since I’ve been a cardholder since 92 and […]

Mike B

Would this apply to Delta AMEX Cards? While they are AMEX cards, they earn Skymiles rather than MR points. Thus, shouldn’t Delta get to decide how their points/miles are earned. AMEX should only be able to decide how their MR points are earned and these new RAT measures should only apply to cards earning MR points, unless the specific co-brand carrier asks them to apply the same monitoring efforts.


I am a bit puzzled about what behavior exactly Rat Poison is trying to warn us about. He mentions “churning” a lot, but also quite a bit about manufactured spending. I thought “churning” referred to getting a welcome bonus on a card, cancelling it, and then later getting another welcome bonus on the same card. Manufactured spending is a second type of “bad” behavior. But what started it all was the self-referral, which is neither one of these two things.


“Self-referrals were like a litmus test for who will be the low-hanging fruit for them to cut.” The logic is if you did self referrals, it is more than likely that you are also “churning” or ms.

Dan - Legal Bank Robber

The dudes spewing bullshit. No one with that knowledge cares to help or warn us.


If they shut you down do you still get to transfer out your membership rewards or you lose them?
Chase gives 30 days to transfer out after shutdown.


I think here they are missing the point .WHAT HAPPENS TO YOUR FICO SCORE AFTER THEY BONE YOU ??????
I had to Share that as in a future loan or just living if they trash ur FICO as in more $$$.

Dan - Legal Bank Robber

Your FICO score wouldn’t be effected really besides a higher credit utilization. Closed accounts continue to age on your FICO report for 10 years.


You Sure the Account is Closed by the Bank and all is Well and Good ..Hmmm and it’s 7 yrs not 10 years and 10 years for a BK .
But then Who Cares .

JB San Diego

Where not in Kansas anymore!

Just glad my account is still alive!!

Best to stay low for a while and monitor the RAT!


Who cares about Kansas ? Just booked my Mykonos hotel for Sept @ 0400 could be more fun .

Raghu Narayanan

When you say multiple versions of the same card, I have the amex everyday card for myself. I am also a AU on Amex everyday card with my wife. So is that a red flag?


What about two different versions of the platinum card: Amex and Schwab?

I’ve always wondered why any bank would care about MS if you’re paying your bills on time. I found out in 2013 Chase cared. It’s weird –really weird , how they gave me some cards a few years later and rejected others for “previous unsatisfactory business relationship”
New marketing line : “AMEX CARES”


Things Change as u should know Trader. No one cares only Profits Do .


Maybe I can visit your cave sometime and teach you how to lose money trading


Nopes I’d learns that stuff 20 years ago and my last 7 to 3:30 job was 10x harder and almost got me Dead about 20x ..
This Award Stuff is a Fun Game as you know Sir..


I don’t agree with the point regarding carrying a balance. It is absolutely not true. Othetwise, why would Amex make all of their charge cards “pay over time” AND give points for opting in pay over time. Also, when we call to cancel card we should mention that there are too many rumors of shutdowns and clawbacks and that it is giving an anxiety to earn and keep MR points. Eventually they will listen


Many of us have 2 Hilton cards. Are those included too or just those cards earning Membership Reward Points?


I was thinking about doing another Hilton Surpass card with the referral from spouse when the pre-approved no language links were good. I also know that people did another link for aspire and have 2. What do you think about the risk?


Hi Greg,
Thanks for the info.
I don’t MS and referring only from player #1 to #2. However, I am concerned about the only way I know to get the air incidentals which is buy a reward ticket or regular ticket partial paid with gift card and cancel it it 24h (I don’t have delta elite, so 24h is the only full reward).
Since delta is the last one that works, and I have platinum, aspire and gold to deal with. I think that I am in serious bind…
What do you think about purchase and cancel? It works great for resort fees, but not sure for how long.


Thanks for the thorough update, FM.

Big question is whether they want to go back and look at airline fee credits for gift cards. And if it’s worth trying any kind of tricks with those fees in 2020.

Myself, I have the Platinum and Aspire… Not sure I can get full value out of $450 in airline credits if only good for fees in 2020.

Also worried they could spot ‘fake’ businesses pretty easily. Have a nice Bonvoy Business card offer they emailed me, but thinking twice about it. I mean if they wanted to ID a lot of things, the data is already there and business cards are low hanging fruit IMO.


Meh, if they want to close me, so be it. Been a great run and Amex owes me nothing but fond memories. Until that time, it’s business as usual…


Me too’s it’s been an Unreal Run just for 10 years ..

Parts Unknown

Cannot agree more. I’m transferring out as I earn instead of stashing. I think it’s a fairly large risk, but I don’t think the amateur detective work on Reddit is all that useful.


I did that before on my 2 last card applies don’t let them Burn You..


The biggest problem with these discussions is this is all about trade offs and what you value. For myself, I value Delta status, thus I need to do some manufacturing to keep that status. Is that risky? Maybe, but if I don’t do it, I don’t get Delta status……..thus the conundrum. So, I probably will keep pushing it a bit, and hope Amex is fine with it since they cut my spending miles earning by 33%……


Not saying these new rules don’t make sense. However, it seems the basis of the suggested rules comes from one source the “rat poison” post. The “rat poison”post is very detailed making it seem credible but what if it’s BS?