Travel Troubleshooter: Be careful with your 'affinity' credit card

06/30/2013 12:00 AM

06/28/2013 5:13 PM

I recently applied and received a co-branded credit card from Chase and AARP. The card had an introductory offer of 5 percent (cash back) for the first six months of card usage. I used the card and earned 201,780 points. Every single charge was legitimate, and I have receipts. Furthermore, every single charge was authorized by Chase.

This week, I logged into my online account to find my account was closed and I would not get the points accrued the last fiscal month of activity. I called Chase and they told me that because the card was not "used as intended" they had closed my account.

I have a personal checking account and a business account with Chase. My Chase bank manager tried to help and hit a brick wall, figuratively speaking. I also asked AARP to help me, but it has not been able to do anything, either.

I believe Chase closed the account so it would not have to pay 201,000 points, which are worth about $2,000. I am considering taking this to court.

Can you help me?

– Robert Weisberg, Deerfield Beach, Fla.

Affinity cards like the one you used are a popular way to earn miles and points quickly. But you have to read the fine print before you take advantage of an offer: There are many details that can foil your efforts.

One of the standard program rules that most cardholders aren't aware of is that the points don't belong to you, strictly speaking. They're the property of the company issuing the card. Also, the contract says they can change the rules whenever they want to, and for whatever reason they please.

When it comes to affinity cards, a bank will pay a travel company a penny or less per mile but will get a dollar or more of your purchase in exchange. That benefits the card issuer, and, to a lesser extent, you. But when you figure out a way to game the system – which it looks as if you did – the company can simply pull the plug on your point-collecting efforts.

It shouldn't be allowed to do that. But one reason the courts have been so reluctant to step in and tell a credit card company that it can't, is that these programs are so complicated, only a select few experts can make sense of them. So, while you may have been able to sue Chase and AARP, it wouldn't have set any precedents. You'd just be another cardholder who played the game and lost and persuaded a court to intervene.

Personally, I think these affinity cards are dangerous because of the way they influence your spending. I mean, would you have otherwise made enough purchases on your personal or business account to accumulate 201,780 points? You may have benefited from that, but Chase and AARP probably benefited more.

I contacted Chase on your behalf. It declined to comment on your case, but it contacted you and cut you a check for $2,400, the approximate value of the points you lost.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can read more tips on his blog, elliott.org or email him at chris@elliott.org.

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