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Amex used dubious sales tactics to boost card sign-ups, report says

The tactic, according to the Wall Street Journal, goes back to at least 2015, when the card issuer tried to make up for the loss of a co-branding initiative with Costco

Summary

American Express used dubious sales tactics when trying to convince small business owners to sign up for Amex credit cards in an effort to ramp up sales, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal.

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American Express misled small business owners into signing up for Amex credit cards in an effort to ramp up sales, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal.

The practice could be traced back to at least 2015, when the card issuer was trying to hold on to cardholders who used its Costco-branded card, after its partnership with the wholesale giant ended. Business owners in particular generated considerable revenue for Amex through this card, and the card issuer wanted to retain their business.

To this end, the WSJ reports, Amex engaged in what it dubbed “Project Lincoln,” with the aim of targeting Costco business card holders and persuading them to sign on to Amex cards.

Egged on by the prospect of big rewards for their sales efforts, some Amex salespeople then tried to sign up these consumers by providing them misleading information about the card accounts. After the Costco project ended in 2016, some salespeople continued to misinform consumers to drum up sales.

In response to an inquiry by CreditCards.com, an Amex spokesman said via email, “It is important to note that the telesales team referenced in the WSJ article is responsible for approximately 0.25% of the 65 million total cards American Express issued between 2014 and 2019. Furthermore, less than 0.25% of the group’s sales activities were identified by us as being inconsistent with our sales policies, and we addressed those instances with our customers and employees as appropriate.”

See related: Consumer groups say CFPB rules for abusive practices will limit enforcement

Dubious tactics

The tactics the Amex salespeople referenced in the WSJ article used included:

  • Running credit checks against consumer wishes
  • Misrepresenting card fees and rewards
  • Issuing cards that consumers did not want, including multiple cards per person
  • Informing customers that they were getting upgrades to cards instead of new cards
  • Not providing adequate disclosures

One indication that something might have been amiss, according to the WSJ report, is that only 40% to 45% of the cards mailed out as part of Project Lincoln were activated, compared to Amex’s usual rate of at least 60%. The salespeople involved in the project managed to retain a good number of Costco customers, and some made commissions of about $50,000 to $100,000 within six months of launching the project.

OCC investigation

After Wells Fargo was found to have opened accounts without consumers’ permission in 2016, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) asked other banks to look into their own practices.

Amex did find evidence of misleading behavior by its salespeople during the period of 2014 through 2017, according to the WSJ report, some of whom it fired. It also asked the credit bureaus to retract inquiries from the reports of consumers who did not consent to credit checks.

However, Amex did not take into account calls made by salespeople from their personal cellphones or from lines that were not recorded, according to the WSJ report.

An Amex spokesperson, quoted in the WSJ article, said the company found a very small number of cases “inconsistent with our sales practices.” All of those instances, the spokesperson added, “were promptly and appropriately addressed with our customers, as necessary, and with our employees, including through disciplinary action.”

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