The Amex war on gaming heats up

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The next stage of the Amex war on gaming begins tomorrow, November 1st. In August we reported that Amex had added anti-gaming terms to their signup offers.  Signup offer terms now state:

If we in our sole discretion determine that you have engaged in abuse, misuse, or gaming in connection with the welcome bonus offer in any way or that you intend to do so (for example, if you applied for one or more cards to obtain a welcome bonus offer (s) that we did not intend for you; if you cancel or downgrade your account within 12 months after acquiring it; or if you cancel or return purchases you made to meet the Threshold Amount), we may not credit Membership Rewards® to, we may freeze Membership Rewards® credited to, or we may take away Membership Rewards® from, your account. We may also cancel this Card account and other Card accounts you may have with us.

And in September we reported that Amex was actually enforcing their age-old terms against gift cards counting towards minimum spend requirements.  So far, we only know this to be true of gift cards purchased at Simon Malls, but it seems likely that they’ll spread the joy to other gift card markets.

And now, effective November 1st, Amex has updated the terms on their Membership Rewards cards to disallow abuse, misuse, or gaming in connection with earning or using points.

Amex has declared that they have sole discretion to determine if you’ve broken their rules.  If you have, they may take away your points, cancel your accounts, or temporarily suspend point earning or redeeming.

What is abuse, misuse, or gaming?

The definitions of these terms haven’t been spelled out.  Basically, Amex has declared that they will decide if you’ve done these things after you’ve done them, and that punishment will follow. They did give some hints in their anti gaming signup bonus language, though.  They gave the following examples:

…for example, if you applied for one or more cards to obtain a welcome bonus offer (s) that we did not intend for you; if you cancel or downgrade your account within 12 months after acquiring it; or if you cancel or return purchases you made to meet the Threshold Amount

In other words, with respect to signup offers, “abuse, misuse, or gaming” equates to any ways of obtaining a signup offer other than how they intended.  You should only use signup offers that are meant for you, you shouldn’t do anything “sneaky” to meet minimum spend requirements (such as buying gift cards or buying and returning items), and you shouldn’t cancel the card soon after getting the bonus.

If we apply similar logic, we can try to figure out the definition of “abuse, misuse, or gaming” in connection with earning or redeeming points.  Amex wants us to earn points through regular spend and to redeem points for ourselves.  I can then guess at the banned activities…

Abuse, misuse, or gaming when earning points

My educated guess is that Amex is on the lookout for the following activities with respect to earning points:

  • Large gift card purchases.
  • Frequent gift card purchases with vendors that trigger bonus categories.
  • Abnormally large purchases within bonus categories, especially if there’s any sign that there is some sort of purchase and return scheme going on.
  • Very large credit card spend that far exceeds a person’s apparent ability to pay.  My guess is that they will watch this more closely with personal cards than business cards since large business purchases are common and normal.
  • Earning points through Amex offers on many different authorized user cards.

As I learn about other examples, I’ll update this list.

Abuse, misuse, or gaming when redeeming points

My educated guess is that Amex is on the lookout for the following activities with respect to redeeming points:

  • Selling points.  Indicators of this may be frequent point transfers to many different authorized users’ frequent flier accounts, for example.
  • Buying airfare with the Business Platinum buy with points rebate and somehow getting the airfare refunded.

As I learn about other examples, I’ll update this list.

Analysis

In the last few years Amex has made their credit card lineup more and more competitive.  They’ve continued to offer great signup bonuses and they’ve added bonus categories to existing cards and introduced compelling new cards such as the Everyday Preferred and the Blue Business Plus.  With the latter, for the first time ever, we have have a card that earns 2 points per dollar for all spend (up to $50K per year), and those points are transferable to airline miles.  It’s an unbeatable combination.

Obviously I’m unhappy about the Amex war on gaming, but I get it.  Amex naturally wants those signup bonuses and card features to attract profitable new customers and to retain existing ones.  Customers who use them only for signup bonuses or only for bonus category spend are financial drains.  Amex quite reasonably wants to discourage that behavior.

I also can’t fault Amex for failing to spell out the definition of “abuse, misuse, or gaming.”  They know very well that if they did so, people would seek out and find loopholes.  What are the opportunities that Amex hasn’t banned?  Heck, I’ll admit it… I’d be working on that too.

Amex hasn’t yet applied anti-gaming rules for earning and spending points to their other cards (cash back cards or co-branded cards), but I’d guess that it’s just a matter of time.  We need to live within the new Amex reality if we want to continue to enjoy the benefits that their cards offer.

What to do

You can still sign up for Amex cards for the signup bonuses, but you need to be careful to meet spend requirements in ways that Amex won’t see as gaming.  Obvious options are to use the cards for all spend, and to prepay utilities and other bills where possible.  You can organize events and ask friends to pay you back.  You can pay for covered healthcare expenses and have the insurance company pay you back.  You can fund Kiva loans.  You can pay estimated federal taxesYou may be able to pay miscellaneous bills where credit cards aren’t usually accepted if Plastiq ever fixes their current Amex problem.

Once you’ve earned your signup bonus, ideally you will continue to use the card for everyday spend.  I don’t think that Amex will complain if you restrict a card’s use to it’s bonus categories — as long as it is regular spend.  If you buy lots of gift cards, especially within bonus categories, I doubt your account will last long.

If you don’t want to pay a card’s second annual fee, wait until the annual fee posts to your account and then call to see if they’ll give you a retention offer.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  If they offer you something that is worth the annual fee, then pay it.  Otherwise cancel or downgrade to a lower annual fee card.  If you want to do that latter, though, make sure that you’ve had the lower fee card before.  If not, you should look to signup new for that card so that you can get a new signup bonus before it’s too late.  Amex has a pretty strict “once per lifetime” rule with their cards, so you don’t want to blow your chance at a signup bonus by downgrading your card.

Keep in mind that Amex cards tend to have the best benefits around. Many are worth their annual fee for their benefits alone.

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[…] terms against meeting spend requirements by buying gift cards, buying & returning items, etc. (The Amex war on gaming heats up).  So, let’s assume that the primary new gotcha here is the “number of American […]

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Scottman

This never got answered above, but wondering if adding Amex Offers across several cards (using the new browser page trick) be considered “gaming” the system with the potential to be shut down?

Moshe Lieberman

U think I should attempt to cancel my amex delta within the 2 months so I don’t pay the annual fee ? I already got the points but nervous abt amex new rules which r written on delta apps

Frank

See above for my suggestion.

Frank

Yes, I noticed this on my recent Delta app (targeted as well). Makes it hard as my largest payments cannot be made using AMEX (only VISA or MC), so I used to buy VISA gift cards which could then be used to make those payments.

Moshe Lieberman

Has amex added these rules to the delta cards yet? Looks like they did

Moshe

I’ve noticed these terms on the delta cards as well. I just got the delta platinum and wanted to cancel with In 2 months so as not to pay the annual fee. Do u think they’ll take away my bonus?

Moshe Lieberman

I already have all the miles deposited. You think it’s worth cancelling yo save the 195?

Frank

Moshe, I would not do that. I think AMEX could be more valuable in the future and not worth annoying them. Don’t be greedy. You got the 80,000 miles already didn’t you? Last month I was offered a targeted option of 70K Delta for no fee or 80K Delta for the $195. I tried for both but they denied the second one – both were missing the nasty language and I had just cancelled one a couple of months earlier!

So, slowly I am getting somewhere with AMEX. When they took away my 100,000 (and my wife’s) in a very nasty way, essentially leaving me no way to recover, I was really annoyed but I decided to play the long game and since then (about 14 months ago) we have accumulated a further 250,000 MR between us, an now a second chance on Delta. תהיה סבלני

Frank

And how about property taxes?

Frank

Thanks, Greg. I will give it a go maybe. I am still smarting from the 100,000 points the confiscated last year. Don’t want to set a foot wrong here.

Moshe Lieberman

What did they confiscate it for? Was it Mr points or delta?

Frank

Moshe, it was MR points. They never said what I had done to offend them, but one could assume it was the large purchase at my local Simon Mall.. But I am still hopeful I may convince them to return the points even though a year has passed. I have enlisted some legal aid.

Frank

So, is it certain that paying estimated federal income taxes is OK for AMEX spending, particularly for the initial bonus?

[…] grab a Big Spend Bonus. We still don’t know how Amex will view promotions like this now that the war on gaming has heated up. I suspect that their aim is not to discourage you from using your Amex card to buy a few hundred […]

Andrew familynameinemail

If I Am going to cancel a card without paying the (second year ) annual fee, when is the wisest time to cancel — at 11 months, days before the fee posts, or within a couple of weeks of the fee posting?

Also , is it ok if my minimum spend is met on day 1 with a plastiq payment for (Canadian ) taxes? I am Canadian and my Amex cards are Canadian.

Thank you

Lantean

I think the consensus was to cancel 29 days after the fee posts.
You’ll get a full refund of the fee plus it gives you 29 days to use Amex offers should you get any.
In any case, there have been retention offers lately too so you may get one as well if you call.

[…] Amex War on Gaming: If you cancel before January 18th in order to possibly be eligible for signup bonuses on the new cards, you’ll likely be put on Amex’s naughty list.  See: The Amex war on gaming heats up. […]

Steve

I have been using my American Express Preferred Cash card to buy Amazon gift cards at my local Kroger when they offer 4 times fuel points along with my normal grocery spend. I would guess my spend is about half on groceries and half on gift cards. Will this affect me?

Mike

I buy most of my groceries at the local Kroger and don’t own a car. Is there any kind of secondary market in this fuel points?

toomanybooks

There is, but it’s harder than it used to be. Used to be able to just grab new loyalty cards, load them up, and sell before registering. Now usually you have to download/activate a coupon first.

Check ebay to see what’s current.

Gray

What this tells me, at least, is that if one is angling to get a bonus but nix the card after less than a year, one should probably have a transfer partner (and ideally a short-term redemption) in mind. Of particular interest is the fact that when pushing the DL Gold Amex, Delta’s representatives explicitly (and repeatedly) pushed that the fee was waived for a year “so you can decide if the card is right for you” (or very similar words). If Amex were to try and claw points back on the basis of cancelling a card sold as such, that would make for an interesting court case.

Also interesting will be any clawback attempts where the card was acquired prior to this change…I can just see the argument going around in circles: “You cancelled your card because you never intended to keep it.” “No, I cancelled it because you altered your T&C and I didn’t agree to the changes.”

Of course, /that/ raises an interesting question: If someone cancels a card shortly after a T&C change is announced and Amex decides to penalize them for it, “sole discretion” aside I’d like to hear a lawyer talk about /that/, since a (potentially quite punitive) penalty for cancelling a contract after the other party unilaterally altered it seems rather coercive (and potentially unconscionable) to me.

Scottman

Will adding the Amex Offers across several cards (using the new browser page trick) be considered “gaming” the system with the potential to be shut down?

David

Safeway Just4U offering $10 off $150+ gift card purchase. With AMEX increasing scrutiny on Membership Rewards cards, do you feel comfortable using an AMEX Everyday Preferred to purchase a $500 gift card in conjunction with this deal?

Mike

Well, it’s 1 November. How many AmEx customers had their world end overnight?

Nun

Not sure I agree with your list. I would think Amex wants to stop people from getting sign-up bonuses in certain ways, wants to stop the selling of points and wants to stop “airline” refunds that aren’t really airline purchases, and that’s it.

Earning regular points on buying gift cards earns them money just like any other purchase. Unless they consider that you are a financial risk, I don’t see why they’d want to stop that. Closing accounts due to financial risk is separate from the points issue. Things like earning Amex Offers on multiple cards can’t be significant, but that’s a guess.

Yuri

This is not true that Amex BBP is the first card to give 2 points for everything. Barclays had at least 2 cards like that: Wyndham and Priceline. Both earned 2x on everything.

Nick Reyes

I think Greg meant it was the first time ever that a card is earning 2 points per dollar everywhere (up to $50K) that are also transferable to airlines. There are other cards that earn 2x everywhere, like the Capital One Venture Card in addition to those you mentioned. But those points are just worth a penny apiece and can’t be transferred to airlines (or in the case of the Wyndham card they can only be used for Wyndham hotels – the transfer ratios to airlines are poor). The Blue Business Plus is notable because it earns a flexible currency at 2x everywhere on up to $50K in purchases annually.

Yuri

Not true. Priceline point worth 1.67 cents. Wyndham is variable. But you’re right this is the first transferable 2x. I want UR version of this card!

Jesse

So earlier this year when the Amex SPG had the 35k offer I spent $1500 to add to my Amazon funds. This is banned now? It was completely legitimate and intended to use those funds for the holidays by the end of the year.

Nick Reyes

I don’t read it to mean that reloading your Amazon balance for $1500 one time is a banned activity. I read it to mean that if you’re buying tens of thousands of dollars in Amazon gift cards and you seem to be doing it by adding 99 authorized users and using the same Amex Offer 99 times and only using the category bonus on Card XYZ to do it they’re going to shut you down. I’d be surprised if one $1500 purchase reloading you balance at Amazon gets you shut down. I obviously don’t know for sure, but I don’t think I’d be concerned about that.

5150

They finally hired someone with the balls to do this. Give me a break, if you were in charge of this department would you READ THESE BLOGS?

Dmitri

Greg, what’s your take: is it safe to buy PPDG GCs to meet MSR?

TheMonkeyTech

They held up bonuses on my SPG and Hilton Surpass card. I was 100% organic spend. After i get my points from SPG and Hilton, i will close the cards immediately. Tired of AMEX’s games. Luckily its once in a lifetime anyways, but my family is definitely moving our daily spend business to BofA for all the wonderful Alaska cards they give us. We should reward our business to banks like BofA and Citi, that never tried to jack us of bonuses. Citi has never short changed me on an AA bonuses.

ff_lover

+1

esf

I have never heard Amex holding bonuses on non-MR cards. How long did they hold your bonuses? and had you already done anything of RAT interest on one of your MR cards?

Nick Reyes

There have been a number of similar reports in recent months of bonuses on the hotel cards being delayed (both signup and AU bonuses). Those reporting this issue have said that Amex confirms that they’ve meet the bonus requirements but a technical issue is slowing down the posting of the bonuses. I haven’t had personal experience with it, but I have heard talk about it. Hopefully that speeds back up.

esf

Can you please point me to where I can find some of these reports.

ff_lover

Most of AMEX cards will go into my sock drawer until i cancel them. My spend will go toward mostly on Chase.
Bye bye AMEX

Jesse

Seems like a smart move. Chase is becoming the Amazon in the credit card industry while Amex has already become the Sears. I remember when Amex and Sears were great in the 90s, but they both are out of touch.

Jeff

Bottom line for me: Historically, MS on the Surpass (to earn Diamond status) has been considered “Safe” and these warnings were primarily directed towards premium and MR cards. Is Surpass still safe or is the point of this update that Amex is expanding to ALL cards?

Mser

Who knows? Try it and be a data point for everyone else.

NinjaX

FM. I dont get what you mean. All TC have been updated for all AMEX CC. Even cobrands. Did I miss something?

qtjeans

What does MR card mean?

Nick Reyes

Membership Rewards (as in cards that earn Membership Rewards, like the Everyday Preferred, Amex Gold card, Amex Platinum, etc)

qtjeans

Aww, dang, I’ve been using gold for 4x at grocery buying thousands of Amazon cards. Better rethink what to do now. Thank you!

NinjaX

Hey FM. Appreciate the response. While what you say is technically true, when AMEX changed TC for the SPG, Delta and Hilton Honors cards, there were new terms which allow Amex to delay issuing rewards for up to 12 weeks. Thats 3 damn months. The change is effective November 1, 2017 as well. I take that to also be “war on MS terror”.

If its simply to delay the points, then thats not too bad considering MR TC explicitly mention the ban hammer if they see “abuse, misuse, or gaming”, but why the difference in TC between MR and cobrand? Dont know, but I pretty much take it as the same thing. Meaning, Amex needs that delay on 12 weeks to verify “abuse, misuse, or gaming”.

Lantean

DP:
I bought $413.90 worth of Visa gift cards at Staples last week and they counted towards min spend because they helped me get over the hurdle… already got my bonus.

Geoff

FWIW, so did we last summer. Over three months later they pulled all 100K bonus back. It was ugly.

ktc

Amex is like an uncreative manager who cannot bring new ideas that will lead to revenue generation but only think of downsizing people or space to cut down cost to look like increase of revenue.

Lantean

yep, this is precisely correct.

Rich

I understand the need to ban “gamers”. Some of these blog writers brag about applying for multiple cards at the same time and then cancelling within a month to avoid fees. But the rest shouldn’t be punished. Just lifetime ban those guys.

Amex used to be the premier card nobody could touch. Amex gold used to mean something. Now citi and Chase have comparable products or better.

Lots of merchants don’t accept amex because they are a pain in the ass. Costco dropped them.

RIP amex

Geoff

Seems to me that AMEX might enforce these vague stipulations more on sign up bonuses than bonus spend(which encompasses almost all cards in some way).
We had a Platinum 100K bonus pulled back by using gift cards and some organic spend.
We’ve never had an issue(yet) using Delta Amexes to buy gift cards(debit/PIN) in addition to usual spend for annual Skymile/MQM spend. Maybe this is what AMEX is shooting for now.

Gary

I’d love to leave amex. They’ve really gone down the tubes the past year or two. The problem is that as far as spend ability goes, nobody that I’ve found comes close to amex charge cards. If I can spend $150k on a chase ink card, I can spend $500k+ on an amex business charge card without blinking. For my business, this is crucial towards our cash flow. If anyone has any suggestions of other banks that have either very generous credit lines or very flexible spending ability, I’d love to hear.

atxtravel

If you spend so much in one go, have you tried negotiating with your suppliers to just give you a 5%+ cost discount and pay cash, instead of receiving reward points of dubious value.

Stephen

There seems to be a lot of assumptions here. Amex won’t be “alienating” current card members. They aren’t going to ban you for just a few purchases. I doubt if you buy 10’s of thousands in gift cards included in your 10’s of thousands of regular spend, you’ll have a problem. Biz customers are important and they certainly don’t want to lose them. The point is to stop people from artificially earning points and costing them money.

Amex has extremely sophisticated transaction modeling in use today. They are just defining new parameters and sticking it into the model. My guess is the rules were created and put into test in August and they have been monitoring them since. They’ll also continue to monitor them. If it’s too wide of a net being cast, they’ll pull it back and vice versa

atxtravel

How is a business spending $100k on supplies different from spending same money on GCs? Same interchange fees, and “gaming” isn’t just how you earn, but how you burn. People don’t need to do MS to squeeze out maximum benefit from the rewards and therefore still be unprofitable. AMEX is on a witch hunt/wild goose chase….pointless rules that won’t get them what they want. Maybe they should focus on making MR program great again and making people want to spend on the cards vs. holding them just for benefits.

Ken

Do you think Amex will care about the Ebay daily GC deals since you can only do 1 per offer/listing/deal?

Stephen

No. not at all.

really

” So they’ll be alienating a lot of customers while banning a few small time gamers.”
uh, hahahahhahhahahahahah

Dabby

Agree – laughable.

So many MSers seem to think they are “highly valuable, longtime customers” whose business these companies would never want to lose.

WRONG! Could not be more wrong, in fact.

Tim

Is Amex waiting for 11/1 to close down some accounts based on past usage? I may transfer quite a few Rewards points to partners today; I don’t want to have my accounts cancelled and the points clawed back. I’m concerned they will look at our history with Amex as much as the present and future. My history with Amex has been to sign up for cards multiple times, spend for the signup bonus (some MS), and then drawer the card, occasionally paying the 2nd year annual fee and using the card only for Offers and bonus spend. I have also used business cards for what may appear to Amex reviewers to be non-business spend. I don’t want to gamble losing my points.

Stephen

Highly doubt they’ll apply new terms retroactively. Obviously I could be wrong, but prior things can’t be held to new rules and I think it would open them up to lawsuits.

They will certainly be able to model based on your history. But the only thing that will matter is spend going forward.

JdR

Question is, will Amex shut down just the card you are gaming or ALL YOUR AMEX CARDS?

Stephen

Article says close account level. So unless your cards are under different accounts (I.e. you have more than one Mr bank) you’ll get them all closed if they so choose.

Ed

I stopped considering Amex cards and shifted my actual business spend to other card issuers. Amex is alienating business owners by going overboard on some of their rules. Many of us already left them last year. I may MS some, but I also have a lot of regular spend and they don’t deserve that nor my family’s regular spend transactions. They targeted the wrong group of people. I’ve almost forgot what Membership Rewards is. Even though me and my family were donating all our points to charity through Amex’s own charity program they still burned us. That RAT department didn’t even care that we gave our points to charity. Other banks don’t seem to burn bridges to business customers as much as Amex has done. And, I’ve heard Chase loves how Amex has treated some big spending business owners; Chase ended up with a lot of new accounts including business checking and investments because some of us got burned by Amex.

Mser

Give us a break. Anyone playing the game with any intensity vastly exceeds 5/24. Amex was far and away the best for MS in scale and Amex offers.

HD

“Gaming” = gambling, not MS.

duh

In this context, “gaming” = “gaming the system,” a commonly used phrase that has nothing to do with gambling.

Kate

Much of this I can understand, for example, canceling a card within 12 months. However, someone is clearly making money on the sale of large gift cards, or there wouldn’t be so many for sale, and sometimes even with substantial incentives, like fees waived, or gas points given from grocery stores. Heck, I don’t think the Giant grocery stores and in my area would have resumed selling them unless there was a lot of money to be made. I’m not sure why Amex wouldn’t come out ahead on gift card purchases, with the possible exception of bonus categories? Interested in your thoughts. So, for example, would you advise no more purchases of gift cards from grocery stores with the PRG card with the 2x category?

THEsocalledfan

Really a crazy situation for those of us who use the system for Delta status. I pay two $450 annual fees, plus, when I am completed, these are 1.5X purchases, plus whatever Delta charges them for the MQM. I’m betting I’m right on the edge of profitability. Would they really shut down a $450 annual fee card user? My guess is no, and I am willing to gamble I’m right, particularly since I’d only do enough to keep plat with new rules to be safe. (My regular flying is around 50 mqm)

Thing that still cracks me up is that Amex/Delta basically encouraged this when they set the 25K min spend MQD waiver policy……

atxtravel

….not to mention, there are many businesses which legitimately purchase vast quantities of GCs as promotional items. So they’ll be alienating a lot of customers while banning a few small time gamers. Now that the bonus can only be had once per lifetime, this move makes no difference.

atxtravel

I understand their logic for banning MS on sign-up bonuses, but they’re delusional if they think it’ll stop gaming. Many of the points afficionados aren’t exactly poor and can easily sub some kind of other spend, but it doesn’t mean they’ll magically turn into profitable customers just because they don’t buy GCs. I just pay my taxes to meet minimum spend now, and I’m not any closer to actually using the cards because they provide no value to me.

Brooks

Does Amex even know when a portion of a charge at a grocery store is for gift cards?

Stephen

Yes. I think gc are run as a different txn. The GC have an indicator in the transaction message that the terminals set.

Nick Reyes

It depends on the data the store provides. Google “Level 3 data” and you’ll find that different stores report different amounts of data on your transactions. But yes, it’s certainly possible for Amex to know exactly what you’ve bought.