Must cards keep paying out at their original reward level?

Cashing In columnist Tony Mecia
Tony Mecia is a business journalist who writes for a number of trade and general-interest publications. He writes "Cashing In," a weekly column about credit card rewards programs, for

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Question Dear Cashing In,
In 2001, I got a cash rebate card from American Express (American Express Platinum Cash Rebate). This card is no longer being offered, and it is now grandfathered. At the time, what I can remember is that the cash rebate was for 5 percent. Now, they are saying it's 2 percent, but they are not paying what they are supposed to. They say they are looking into it, but I became curious about what our rights are as consumers. 

How can I find out from a reliable source if the rebate was 2 percent and not 5 percent? What rights do I have as a credit card customer to reliable info, and where do I go after so many years? If they refuse to pay the right cash-back amount, where does a consumer go for help? -- Patti

Answer Dear Patti,
If a credit card company today were to offer a flat 5 percent cash back card, people would be signing up in droves. That would be an offer that is far more generous than anything on the market now.

The best deals today allow you to redeem rewards at around 2 percent of what you charge. Granted, some cards give you higher percentages back for spending in certain categories, such as groceries or gas. Or they do what the Chase Freedom card (no annual fee) does, which is give you 5 percent cash back in categories that rotate every three months. (The amount you can earn is capped at $75 a quarter.) Then there are retail cards, such as the Target Redcard, which gives you 5 percent off of all purchases -- only at Target. 

But an across-the-board 5 percent cash-back card? That doesn't exist (except in our credit card dreams).

Unfortunately, I don't know of any archive of past credit card offers that would prove that such a deal existed in 2001. I looked online and did not see any mention of such a card. It's always a good idea to print out the terms of a new card when you apply for it, so that you have some proof in case there's an error in the future, or you don't get the rewards you're supposed to. 

I referred your question to American Express, which said that it directs its cardholders to work with customer service in cases like this. A company spokeswoman said that while she cannot speak to your exact situation, "terms and conditions of card offers are subject to change."

In any event, whether the company used to offer such a deal really doesn't matter. In the fine print of their cardholder agreements, credit card companies make sure to give themselves the flexibility to change a program's terms for just about any reason. 

Check out, for instance, this language from American Express relating to its Membership Rewards program: "We reserve the right to add to and/or change the Membership Rewards program ('program') Terms & Conditions at any time. This means, for example, that we may change the number of points earned for spending, or the number of points required to redeem rewards, impose caps and/or fees on earning and/or redeeming points, increase the annual and/or other program fees and/or cancel rewards."

They're saying, in short, that they can do what they want. They have to follow the law, of course, but generally, reward programs are less regulated than other card terms such as fees and interest rates.

In practice, cards change all the time. For instance, the American Express Blue Cash card used to give 5 percent back on gas, groceries and drugstore purchases after the cardholder spent $6,500 a year, but the company chose to scale those numbers back in 2011, although it grandfathered in existing customers for a period. Sometimes card companies discontinue cards altogether. When that happens, they typically transition customers into a similar card.

It sounds as though you are working with American Express, which is the best way to start. If you are not satisfied, you have the right to seek arbitration in your dispute. You could also file a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau or the Federal Trade Commission.

Good luck!

See related: As airlines merge, frequent flier miles decline in value, Rewards programs move toward flexible, immediate spending

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Updated: 02-18-2019