The Week Explained: Amex not as helpful as the marketing suggests

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 October, 2012, 1:54am

If you have a credit card you might want to pay some attention to this story. It's something of a saga, but bear with me because the bottom line is rather scary.

Recently, I realised that two insurance policies purchased via a promotion run by American Express, with payment linked to its cards, were more expensive than comparable products.

As the policies were reaching the end of their term I terminated them, or at least thought I had. But I soon discovered my credit card was still being debited for the policies, despite me terminating them. What followed was weeks of phone calls to an astonishingly misnamed "hotline".

The calls ate up a large amount of time, got nowhere, and ended with a harassed call-centre operative promising that someone would call back.

Well you know how that works - on just two occasions it actually happened. On one call, it appeared that I had managed to convince the official that one of the policies had indeed been cancelled, and a promise was made to credit my account for the money taken out without my permission.

I foolishly started to believe that, despite the aggravation, the system might just be working. I was getting to the stage where I had to give my account number no more than three times during a single conversation, and could get away with repeating my date of birth a mere twice.

Then I got a letter from someone described as "The Manager, World Services" informing that me that "we acknowledge you have advised us that you now recognise the charge" - that being the charge for the other cancelled policy.

So it was back to the phone for a rather more vivid conversation with a very harassed operative who decided that all the senior officials were out to lunch. Then came the usual "we'll ring you back". In fact, someone did ring back and is "investigating" the case.

Meanwhile, I checked to see what would happen if I told Amex that I won't pay for a service that I am not receiving. The consequences of doing this are truly scary. No charge is deemed to be cancelled until the credit card issuer cancels it.

That being the case, it matters not how many letters and phone calls you make, the amount will stay on your account, and if it is not settled interest charges will mount.

If you still refuse to pay, you go on a blacklist that is not only kept by the card issuer but circulated to other credit companies, which will be informed that you are a bad credit risk. This is serious as it can affect anything from a home purchase to getting another card.

What redress does the hapless credit card customer have? Well, ultimately, it should be possible to prove that the debt was non-existent, but that could take a very long time. In the meantime, things can get very sticky indeed.

I live in hope that Amex will not take things this far. But there is nothing in the company's attitude that is reassuring. In a sense, Amex is right to have implied that I am to blame for this state of affairs. That's because people like me should pay more careful attention to their credit card account statements.

Additionally, I should not have been so stupid as to sign up for a service that is renewed automatically on an annual basis, as opposed to taking out a fixed annual contract that can then be carefully reviewed. Credit card companies move heaven and earth to prevent you doing this, but it can be done.

I am not alone in having had problems. US bank regulators this month fined American Express US$27.5 million for violating consumer protection laws and ordered them to refund customers US$85 million.

So be careful when dealing with these people.