American Express and Negative Option Billing – Customer Beware

This is specific to American Express, but I’m sure it’s an issue with other credit cards as well.

I’ve always believed that if there was a charge on my card that I didn’t agree with, all I had to do was call the credit card company to get it removed.

In the past, when it’s come up, that’s exactly what I’ve done, and there’s never been any hesitation on the part of the card company.

Apparently I was wrong.

Today I hit an interesting issue, and I’m both surprised and disappointed in American Express’s policy regarding recurring  or negative option billing.

In December of 2006 I purchased a 2 year membership to Classmates.com. This was before Facebook pretty much destroyed their business model.

I received an invoice from them at the time which states the 59.00 USD fee was for a 2 year period.

Nowhere on the receipt does it indicate that I’ve agreed to any kind of automatic renewal or recurring billing, but it does indicate a ‘renewal date’ of December 2008.

When I received my Amex bill in the mail today, there was a 59.00 USD charge from Classmates.com. I called Amex to ask them to remove the charge.

Not so easy.

According to Amex, because the merchant (i.e. Classmates) has indicated it is a recurring charge, Amex will not reverse the payment without proof that I’ve canceled my membership.

Ok. So, with the Amex agent on the line, I pull up my receipt and send it to her:

20090121_billing

The agent then tells me that nowhere on the receipt does it indicated that I’ve NOT agreed to renewal.

Huh ?

She then looks online and says that the Classmates site indicates that memberships are automatically renewed. Maybe today it does, but that doesn’t mean that it did in 2006 when I did the original transaction, and beside, the receipt doesn’t indicate that.

Not good enough says American Express. I need to prove that I haven’t renewed, some VALID indication that I DIDN’T agree to autorenew.

Hmmm. Me on the phone saying I didn’t ? Not good enough.

Of course it’s impossible to call the vendor (American Express even tried with me on the phone) and an email to them results in an auto reply. Interesting, the reply explains how to turn off auto renew (even though I never turned it on).

The problem is that only stops it for the next renewal, scheduled for December 2010, and doesn’t help me with my current billing problem.

Surprisingly, neither will American Express help me.

Classmates.com is essentially using negative option billing. It’s a terrible business practice.

The Government of Ontario even has an advisory on their web site about it. They’ve even passed laws to try to stop it. Did I mention that it’s a terrible business practice – desperation really.  I’m surprised that American Express is so supportive of merchants doing business this way – to the point of siding with them over their card holders.

According to the agent, if the vendor claims the charge is recurring, then American Express takes the side of the merchant, until the customer can PROVE they didn’t agree to a recurring charge. And from my example, supplying a copy of the receipt that clearly indicates a 2 year term and DOESN’T indicate an autorenewal just isn’t good enough.

Based on this position, any merchant you’ve ever conducted an online transaction with, who claims to have a recurring billing arrangement with you, CAN put through a charge. And your credit card (or at least American Express) will not reverse if if you call them to tell them you never agreed to such a thing.

Ironically, our credit card companies have for years been trying to reassure us that online purchasing can be safe. Here’s a straight forward example where the immediate response from the card company should be simple:

Remove the charge. The client says they didn’t authorize it. Simple.

Instead. American Express sides with the vendor, leaving the customer hanging in the cold. The problem with this of course is that any merchant I’ve done business with in the past could easily put through a transaction for any amount claiming it was a ‘renewal’. As I said at the top, I’ve always believed that solving any such problem was as simple as a phone call to the credit card company, Apparently not so, as long as the vendor claims it’s a recurring charge.

What’s irritating is that the agent at American Express kept saying that I “must have agreed to recurring billing” when I did the original transaction. I explained over and over that I did not, regardless of what Classmates.com claimss. There’s any number of changes they could have made to their policies in the 2 years since my original purchase, and even sending a copy of the receipt to Amex didn’t change their position one bit. I really annoys me that they can be so dismissive of a customer, while that customer is on the phone with them.

Perhaps Amex should be advertising with the words of the agent who was on the phone with me: “If you’re going to buy on the internet, it’s buyer beware”

I’m sure I’ll eventually get hold of someone at Classmates.com and will get the charges removed, but if you can’t reach the merchant, good luck convincing your credit card company that you never agreed to be billed on a recurring basis.

Doesn’t inspire confidence.

7 thoughts on “American Express and Negative Option Billing – Customer Beware”

  1. This is a good article which accurately describes American Express billing Method. I once used American express’s so called Reward points equvalent to a amount of $ 54.99 and booked on line a room in a Piladelphia Hotel ( Sheraton Society Hill ), on Dec 14, 2008. American Express billed me 127.51 for that Stay, while the Hotel billed me for the same night stay (December 14, 2008) $ 101.89, I brought this double billing to attention of American Express’s consumer Affair Service . They assured me that the account will be placed in dispute. However on march 15, They sent me a letter informing me that Sheraton has removed the 101.89 from that Bill and they enclosed a xerox sheet that looks almost blank with few letters which are illegible. American express did not change the charge of $127.51 but asked me pay 129,01( with fines for late payment).
    I am wondering about whatever had happened to the so called Reward Points? Are these in reality a Punishment Points?

    I seek advice from your staff.

    Thank You.

    Mathu Venkat

  2. I to have gone thru the same thing. I received a charge on my American Express statement. I called and asked to have it removed. They sent me a statement from Classmate.com that can not be read. They said that I have to contact them by phone or e-mail.

    Long distance phone call and can’t get thru. Tried E-mail but it askes for password? What is this. Can’t get thru that way either.

    I have put a permanent block on my account so that in the future NO charges can be made by Classmate.com, but still out the money that was charged in Jan. 2010.

    I ask that all members cancel out & put blocks on their accounts so these crooks can’t get any more money from us.

    Sincerely,

    Roberta (Ledingham) Hatcher

  3. I cancelled Classmates.com in June of 2020 and am still getting billed for it. this needs to stop. How can I get out of this.

  4. This is a good article. I had this very same conversation with American Express and Classmates today. I was saddend to see that all American Express would do is support Classmates and read me their policy statement which they happen to have on hand. Classmates attaches itself to AMEX 24 hour service a good partnership for them. Let me tell you I have had this problem for 2 years and | still can’t seem to get rid of them. Let me point out to you that you will find 171 pages of complaints for this exact issue with classmate at consumeraffairs.com. Let me also point out the 9.5 million dollar class action law suit that the consumers won in Washington in 2008.
    Canadian Law also does not allow this practice. See bill c-276 passed in 1999. Ontario law in 2003. Did I say Ontario Law. What is Amex address PO Box 4500, Stn Agincourt, Scarborough Ontario, M1S 4B1. If Amex is operating in Ontario, We as Canadians should also be yelling at our politions.
    Good luck Amex will only support their financial partners.

    1. Thanks for your comments – it’s super annoying. I’ve since canceled my American Express card and they seemed surprised that after 30 years I would do this. When I explained why – they insisted they would have someone from customer service follow up – they never did.

      Ironically, 4 months later they sent me a new card, as if I was still a member. When I phoned to ask why they had sent me a new card, they seemed baffled at first, then told me just to shred it…

      I’m now using a cash back card with my bank…

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