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Wealth and Wants

The case of the missing points

A recent hotel stay initially earned me a third of the cash back I was expecting; here’s what I did

Summary

A recent hotel stay I paid for with my rewards card only netted me 1 percent cash back instead of the expected 3 percent. My story has a happy ending, but here’s what you should do if your rewards earnings mysteriously fall short.

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I love a good mystery, but not when it involves my cash back earnings.

The points balance listed on the April statement for my Wells Fargo Propel American Express® card seemed way too low. That card got a workout during my family’s recent trip to California. It’s an excellent choice for vacationers because it offers 3x points on dining and travel (including flights, hotels, homestays, car rentals, gas stations, ride-shares and transit). There’s no annual fee, and new cardholders get a 30,000 point bonus, worth $300, after spending $3,000 in the first three months.

I hadn’t calculated exactly how many points I expected to earn from our week out west, although I had a strong suspicion it should have been more. So I did the math to test my gut feeling. A high-level check validated my suspicion, and because this card gives a helpful, detailed breakdown of the points earned via each transaction, I was able to isolate the culprit.

It was a big one. The single biggest transaction of our trip, in fact. A $1,628 hotel stay only received 1x points, not 3x points. That’s a difference of about $33 in rewards.

My story has a happy ending. I called Wells Fargo and explained the situation. The representative said a supervisor would get back to me within 7-10 days. Thankfully, the missing points were credited to my account four days later!

See related:  It’s midyear: How’s your credit card rewards strategy going?

What happened?

I spoke with a Wells Fargo representative a couple of days after that and asked why the points were initially missing. She didn’t know, but she alluded to some sort of coding mix-up.

This doesn’t really make sense because the charge showed up on my statement as “lodging.” It clearly qualified for one of the Propel card’s 3x point categories. I wrote last year about merchant category codes (MCCs) – how transactions are sorted, and how sometimes what you see isn’t what you get.

At the time, I mentioned that my family’s lunch at the cafeteria inside the Monterey Bay Aquarium didn’t qualify as dining because it shared an MCC with the parent organization. That sometimes happens with businesses located within other establishments.

Cardholders are often out of luck on that one – although you could certainly try to plead your case. The good news is this cuts both ways. If you get a massage at a hotel, for example, that might qualify as a travel purchase, which is generally a more lucrative rewards category than spa services.

There was a similar but different issue with the American Express® Gold Card late last year; restaurants that processed payments through services such as Square were not granting the appropriate level of dining points. Amex says the issue has been resolved and cardholders later received the correct rewards. More recently, consumers have reported not earning an expected 4x-point bonus on their top two rewards categories with the American Express® Business Gold Card, though Amex is said to be on the case.

See related:  Americans’ favorite credit card feature is 3 percent cash back on all purchases

My advice

Regarding my April hotel stay, I thought I had an ironclad case because my purchase was made directly with a widely recognized hotel brand (Best Western). All’s well that ends well because Wells Fargo agreed and credited the points. It’s just odd their system didn’t give me the points in the first place.

I don’t think this was a judgment call or human error. And the computers should have recognized lodging as a 3x points category.

The main point for consumers is to be their own advocates and check the math, particularly for big purchases. And if something doesn’t look right, speak up.

What’s up next?

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Published: May 31, 2019

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Credit Card Rate Report Updated: August 14th, 2019
Business
15.55%
Airline
17.50%
Cash Back
17.63%
Reward
17.50%
Student
17.69%

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