So Long, American Express

My relationship with American Express dates back to 1980. From Green Card to Gold Card, Optima to Blue, my privilege of membership has endured the test of time.

Even when it became a stupid move to pay a $150 annual membership fee for AmEx Gold in an age when other cards offered many comparable benefits for free, I continued because it's the only card I have in my married name. So it matches the one on my passport.

Like two of the many Amex celebrity spokespeople over the years -- Tinas Turner and Fey -- I also like the longevity.

I'm funny that way. My checking account at JPMorgan Chase was opened in 1984 when it was still Chemical Bank and my first employer in New York City offered free checking there. This quality hasn't accelerated my home mortgage refinancing, which now enters month five. (But that's a story best left for another day.)

It was something of a surprise last week when I opened a form letter that arrived in a window envelope from American Express. No rich and creamy embossed stationery. No "Dear Laurie." No acknowledgment of membership since 1980. Just a subject line, Re: Blue from American Express, followed by a headline in bold print: Important Account Price Increase Notification.



I skimmed the bulleted list of "principal changes" and can expect to see an Increased Annual Percentage Rate on purchases -- shifting from a fixed rate to variable rate. Raised APR on cash advances. Raised APR on late payment balances, and increased fees for late payments.

My favorite: "In addition, we are pleased to let you know that we will not charge you a fee if you go over your credit limit ... Thank you for being a Cardmember. We look forward to continuing to serve you."

Despite this downright chilly treatment, I'm one of the lucky ones. The Wall Street Journal last week chronicled the tales of folks whose accounts were canceled unbeknownst to them as part of the sweeping move by the credit-card industry to tighten things up before new government restrictions kick in on their fee-charging abilities. Among the institutions doing this, according to the WSJ, are Citigroup, Bank of America and HSBC.

"We feared issuers might make some of these changes and now we see them starting to take place," says Bill Hardekopf, CEO of LowCards.com. The site has a tool enabling consumers to compare rates on cards all over the country.

"These changes will continue as issuers try to find new ways to generate revenue and do anything they can to regain profitability," Hardekopf adds. "Many households can expect changes so we should all pay attention to the white, non-descript envelopes that we receive in the mail and the stuffers in our monthly credit card bill. This is how issuers notify their customers about changes to the terms of their credit card."

I called the AmEx customer service number on the back of my Blue card to see how the company is positioning this for long-standing members. It took some effort to get through to a human being, but a rep named Joy eventually answered my questions. She confirmed the APR is going up by 2.5 percentage points.

Me: "But why are you doing this if I'm such a great customer?"

Joy: "It's basically the same measure all our competitors have taken ... to adjust to the economic adversity."

Reading from what sounded like a canned script, Joy then told me American Express is "still Number 1," because no card benefits are being taken away even though, she claims, everyone else is curtailing them. What action would result in forfeiting my account? AmEx says it sometimes opts to suspend accounts that go unused for two years.

I'm not in that category. I also intend to fully pay off my balance before the new rates go into effect. If I need to use credit, I have other cards with lower rates. At the moment, anyway.

Still, I'm a bit nostalgic for the AmEx of old. It feels like a lifetime between now and then.

4 comments about "So Long, American Express ".
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  1. Allen Maccannell from SenderOK, August 18, 2009 at 7:38 a.m.

    They missed out on getting accepted in much of Europe (decent family restaurants and grocery stores) so I only use Mastercard now. I kept getting told they wanted too much of a percent on the backend (from the businesses who were supposed to be glad Americans were patronizing them - buzz...wrong answer).

    Western Union also ate into their family business where college kids in Europe could pick up cash at the local Amex office which always had a built-in travel agency and great travelers' checks. If Amex wanted more of the expat business, they can still get it. A lot of US banks will refuse to overnight a replacement card to an American customer staying at a foreign address. Amex can, and has, advertised that they can seriously save a customer's life with good service there.

    By so refusing, which can really leave an American in the lurch for a few days, a US bank loses the expat if he or she has any other choice, which they often do or will have even in the scary bank consolidation environment we are seeing now.

  2. Anita Schultz from Big Fish Promotions, August 18, 2009 at 10:30 a.m.

    Viewers watching the PGA tour event over the weekend on CBS were subject to a barrage of American Express advertising aimed at the small business owner. Basic message, "American Express is here for you as start your new venture."

    I have been a card carrying AMEX member since 1997 and as a small business owner I have been with American Express since 2001. For the most part I have been very happy with the benefits that the cards offer, the treatment that I receive from the Platinum concierge service and the road side assistance is outstanding. So I found it ironic that after viewing the feel-good commercial ad nauseam about AMEX being there for folks like me that I would receive a the same form letter Laurie Petersen in this article! I was stunned! I am a long-time member in good standing and this is the treatment that I get?
    I understand that all businesses are taking measures to minimize risk but taking broad stroke measures like this are enough to make me consider other options! AMEX, I think you've missed the boat on this one!

  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, August 18, 2009 at 11:02 a.m.

    Yes, all credit card "dealers" are doing it. The best way to do it to them is to not carry a balance. If you carry a balance with a 20% interest rate and pay it out over just 3 months, you just paid about 30% more than what you paid for the item(s). Remember, you did it to yourself. So the next time someone offers you an alligator for 'Free', figure out what it costs.

  4. Michael Kremin from NeoGen Digital, August 20, 2009 at 8:55 a.m.

    I, for one, a long-standing American Express customer since the early 1980s, also received this cold and unfriendly form letter. As someone who has diligently managed my finances and maintained a high credit rating, I found the letter to be an insult. Amex is relying on its good customers to bail-out their failed business decisions.

    Just as I abandoned other companies that offer poor quality good and services, I will abandon American Express. I never used to leave home without it. Now it will be relegated to the office safe, along with the cards from other high rate charging credit card companies.

    Yes, American Express service used to be exceptional. Now their products are commodities and they have failed to differentiate themselves with significant added value. Their new mantra, along with many other financial institutions, is to punish the loyal customer and replace that customer with some new promotional deal that will expire in 9-12 months. Good-bye American Express. It was good while it lasted.

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