American Express, 'NYT': Partners, but no love match

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The New York Times loves me too much. American Express doesn't love me enough. What a crazy, mixed-up menage a trois! And what a cautionary re-tale for this holiday season.

Our story begins last April, when I succumbed to a direct-mail pitch from AmEx, and upgraded my long-held Gold Card to a fabulous, benefits-rich, hubba-hubba Platinum Card. AmEx duly accepted my $395 "membership fee," canceled my Gold Card and even credited me the unused portion of my Gold Card fee.

Imagine my surprise, then, when-five months later-I got a Gold Card bill. Without my authorization, AmEx reinstated my dead card, charged me a new $56.25 membership fee for it and debited me another $234.80 for a renewal of my subscription to The Times.

I promptly called AmEx and reminded it that the Gold Card no longer existed, and asked that it abandon the effort to resuscitate it. The customer-service representative agreed that, according to her computer monitor, the card did not exist. Following the time-honored protocol of customer-service reps, she said she'd indicate the charge was in dispute, and issue credits for the membership fee and the subscription charge. Then I called The Times, told its customer-service representative, too, that the Gold Card no longer existed, chided them for renewing a subscription without my authorization, gave them my Platinum Card number for a legitimate renewal and returned to work.

This week, I received another missive from AmEx. It was reinstating my Gold Card yet again, charging me a membership fee yet again, and renewing my Times subscription on it-yet again. AmEx's investigation had indeed found "all billing to the card discontinued."

"In view of this," the company's letter went on, "we are removing the credit(s) and rebilling your account."

This time, when I called, the customer-service rep, one Lisa Mirabile, grew testy. "Sir, I'm trying to explain to you," she said, using the customer-service rep's universal introduction to things that cannot be logically explained, "that even though this account was canceled, we cannot remove that charge."

"Why," I asked, "can't you just go back to The Times and tell them they can't charge something to a card that doesn't exist?"

"Because The Times authorized it," Mirabile dictated. "As long as the merchant has that card's number on file, we are allowed to accept that charge and debit your account."

Talk about the power of the press! If I walked into Bloomingdale's and tried to buy a pair of Calvins with my canceled card, quick as you could Ralph I'd be hauled off to the hoosegow. But thanks to The Times, I now have two AmEx cards, two membership fees, two subscriptions to the paper of record, and no way to split the difference and walk away with, say, one of each.

Why? Well, that's the serious part of the yarn. In addition to their inability to drive a stake through the heart of a vampirish Gold Card and eliminate that boiled bunny of an unwanted subscription, two of the world's premier companies can't get their IT systems to do some important things. In this era of customer mobility and cutthroat competition, they cannot flag a premium patron, can't indicate possible violations of consumer laws and can't isolate the kind of complaint that might lose them a client of a quarter-century's standing.

It's 2005. Newspapers are struggling. Premium credit cards abound. And states' attorneys general are investigating things like circulation practices and identity theft. AmEx, New York Times-love me differently, please.

Randall Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is director of intellectual capital at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton.

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