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Credit Card Issuers Play Games with Rewards

|Includes: American Express Company (AXP), BAC, C, COF, DFS, JPM

The credit card default rate in 2009 was the highest it’s been since 1991.  Also, in the last year, 15 percent of American adults, or nearly 34 million people, have been late making a credit card payment.  Due to the tough times we face, many cardholders have no other option but to miss one or more of their credit card payments.  But before they make the hard choice to do so, it’s important for them to realize that they may not only be damaging their credit score, but also sacrificing the benefits of their credit card rewards.

Though consumers are asking more questions about the ins and outs of the terms on their credit card accounts, most of the information that’s circulating around to satisfy these questions addresses finance charges and interest rates.  What about rewards?

If all consumers knew that missing a payment on a credit card bill meant loosing the rewards points that they’d planned to use to buy big ticket home appliance or take a vacation, perhaps their priorities would shift.

Recently we conducted a study at, which revealed that all of the major credit card issuers -- American Express (NYSE:AXP), Bank of America (NYSE:BAC), Capital One (NYSE:COF), Chase (NYSE:JPM), Citibank (NYSE:C) and Discover (NYSE:DFS) -- will revoke all of the reward points earned in a billing cycle during which a consumer’s account is delinquent. Discover and American Express are even more strict.  If a consumer with a credit card account issued by Discover is late on their payments for two consecutive months, the issuer revokes ALL points or miles earned under the customer’s reward program.  American Express reserves the right to follow suit if an account falls out of good standing, but takes this line of action on a case-by-case basis.

These rules may seen tough, but the fact that all of the major credit card issuers reserve the right to change the terms and conditions of their reward programs at any time, and for any reason is even more troubling. The six major issuers also reserve the right to cancel their reward programs at will and at any time - imagine the surprise for a consumer who has accumulated tens of thousands of points.  The results of our study suggest that from the issuers’ perspective, credit card reward programs are looked at as if they are perks, whereas many consumers view them as a credit card’s primary utility.

Consumers should know that it’s possible to avoid the loopholes and penalties that credit card issuers have created around their rewards programs by opting for cash back rewards programs only.  With cash back rewards what you’ve earned is yours to keep, and your rewards can’t be devalued in any way.  Another benefit of a cash back rewards program is that if you become unhappy with your credit card issuer and want to switch to a better credit card you do not have to worry about loosing your cash back.  You can simply request a check for your earned cash back rewards and then close your account at no risk.

In the eyes of many consumers the benefits offered under reward programs are a credit card’s primary utility, and are the sole reason why they choose one card over another.  Unfortunately, as the rewards study revealed, most credit card issuers continue to offer rewards programs whose details are foggy, and in general, they treat the programs as something that their customers should feel lucky and privileged to be a part of.  Instead, credit card issuers should look at their rewards programs as one of the core services that they offer to consumers.  Lastly, it is important for consumers to be well informed about different credit card reward programs, and for peace of mind they should choose a cash back credit card over other rewards credit cards, whenever they can.

Disclosure: COF