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American Express' risk-cutting poses its own risks

April 29, 2009|DAVID LAZARUS

What does AmEx want?

That's a question American Express cardholders are asking more and more these days as the company turns the screws on long-standing customers and seems determined to show as many as possible the door.

Similar moves by leading card issuers drew a scornful response from President Obama, who told industry leaders last week that "the days of any-time, any-reason rate hikes and late-fee traps have to end."

But AmEx, which pocketed $3.4 billion in bailout cash from taxpayers, seems to have been especially successful at making customers feel unwelcome.

I wrote Sunday about a Los Angeles man who had his AmEx credit limit slashed twice by the company and then had his card canceled, all because of a "serious delinquency" in his credit file that apparently no one but AmEx could see.

I've since heard from numerous others who related similar experiences, including some who said AmEx even demanded that they send in copies of their tax returns if they wanted to keep their accounts -- a notion so outlandish that I was sure it had to be a scam.

And demonstrating that AmEx isn't just pushing around middle-class cardholders, I spoke the other day with Beverly Hills resident James B. Davis, who runs a publishing company with about $16 million in annual sales. He said he holds three AmEx Platinum cards, one for personal use and two for business.

Davis, 61, recently received a letter from AmEx saying it was canceling a benefit allowing him to carry an extended balance on certain travel expenses. It said this was due to an unspecified problem with his credit file.

"I have no debt -- zero," Davis told me. "So I called up my credit file and went through all 40 pages of it. I kept seeing 'Account in good standing,' 'Account in good standing.' Every account was in good shape."

He said he finally found a single instance when he was late with a MasterCard payment -- about three years ago.

"I can't believe they were going after me for this," Davis said. "I'm the sort of customer who buys cars on his American Express card."

Worse, he said that when he contacted the company to find out what was going on, all he got was a lot of unhelpful mumbo-jumbo from service reps. This is a customer, mind you, whose credit limit runs in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Davis' theory, and I think he's on to something, is that AmEx has unleashed some sort of computer program that's combing cardholders' credit files for any problem, no matter how small or outdated.

The company is then acting on any such issues to thin the ranks of customers and reduce its exposure to risk at a time when credit card defaults have risen to record levels.

I put this theory to Desiree Fish, an AmEx spokeswoman. All she would say was that the company "is trying to manage its risk prudently."

She said she couldn't comment on Davis' account but insisted that "if we tell people that there's an action because of a delinquency in their credit file, it's because we've found a delinquency."

I asked about the reports I'd heard of AmEx customers being asked by the company to fax in their income tax returns. This couldn't be a legitimate request, right?

Wrong.

"In isolated cases, we will request that a card member provide us with additional information, including tax returns, in order to verify the spending capabilities of that card member," Fish said.

If a cardholder declines to share such info -- and who wouldn't? -- she said that person's card might be canceled or its use could be suspended until the balance was paid down.

"American Express is a brand you can trust," Fish said. "It's not like you're being asked to fax documents to an unknown number.

"In no way is this intended to offend anyone," she added.

And don't let the door hit you on the way out.

Food donations

I wrote last month about California caterers, hotels and restaurants throwing out roughly 1.5 million tons of food annually at a time when food banks and shelters are facing unprecedented demand for assistance from recession-hit people.

I noted that state Sen. Jenny Oropeza (D-Long Beach) was crafting legislation intended to address this sad statistic, but appeared to be scaling back her efforts amid fierce resistance from the California Restaurant Assn.

Well, I'm glad to report that Oropeza has beefed up her bill -- a bit. The legislation, SB 35, still focuses primarily on creating a database that would provide food businesses and their clients with resources for donating leftovers to charity.

But now it also includes language requiring caterers and others to inform clients about the existence of the database. That's a pretty measly improvement, but it is a step in the right direction.

Mandatory discussion of the database might at least get some people thinking about what to do with leftovers instead of allowing them to end up in a dumpster.

Oropeza's bill was approved by the Senate Governmental Organization Committee on Tuesday. It now heads to the Appropriations Committee.

"It's heartwarming to see that our leading policymakers understand this is an issue that can mean the difference between having a wholesome meal or going hungry," Oropeza said. "There simply is too much perfectly good food being wasted in California."

The trick to making this work is for food businesses to be receptive to contacting nonprofit groups that will handle pickup and delivery of leftover food. They're out there -- Angel Harvest in Los Angeles, for example -- but they typically need plenty of advance word to arrange logistics.

It's shameful that so much food goes to waste during a time of such extreme need. All we need is to work together to ensure that leftovers from banquets and hotel functions are put to good use.

And think of all the good karma that can be earned in the process.

--

David Lazarus' column runs Wednesday and Sundays. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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