Aug. 18, 2009 at 9:00 AM ET
Some American Express cardholders will soon have to pay a $29 fee to rescue their rewards points from late-fee limbo. And that's among the more generous policies you'll find from card-issuing banks.
You probably didn't need another reason to avoid getting mixed up in the credit card reward points game of Russian roulette, but here's one: A single misstep can put all those hard-earned rewards points in peril. And Discover Card holders should know that two missteps can make points disappear altogether.
Rewards programs are still incredibly popular with consumers -- nearly half of all credit cards issued come with some kind of reward scheme, according to Crain's New York Business.
But rewards points largesse has been waning, as credit card issuers reel under the pressure of rising default rates. Double- and triple-points programs are nearly extinct. Airline tickets that once cost 25,000 points can now cost 50,000 or 60,000. (HINT: You’re much better off with a simple 1 percent cash-back card).
And now comes word of Amex's new policy for Blue and Blue Sky card holders. In any month that account holders pay their bill late, they forfeit any points earned. The points can be reinstated, but only by paying a $29 tax for each late month.
Believe it or not, that's an improvement over some rewards card policies. At Capital One, for example, cardholders simply lose any rewards earned when their accounts are deemed late. There is no shot at redemption.
Of course, as Bill Hardekopf of LowCards.com points out, $29 is no bargain. Only consumers who spend $2,900 in those months would get full value from resurrecting their lost points, as the points are worth about one penny each. Still, some might be tempted anyway.
"I hope consumers do the math," he said. "A lot of people might not realize what their point structure is."
American Express says it's making the change to give consumers more incentives to pay their bill on time.
"The rewards program is available to rewards customers for their behavior and their loyalty," said Amex spokeswoman Desiree Fish. "For someone not paying on time, there is a penalty. … It helps incent customers to be loyal and to pay us."
Of course, there are other incentives to pay up. Late-paying consumers are also hit with late fees and finance charges.
Fish said the change just brings Amex's Blue and Blue Sky cards in line with other Amex cards. But Hardekopf is concerned that the change is a part of a larger trend: Card issuers finding new ways to make money after Congress declared some of their old tactics illegal.
"We feared issuers might make some of these changes and now we see them starting to take place," he said. "These changes will continue as issuers try to find new ways to generate revenue and do anything they can to regain profitability."
INTEREST RATES UP
Fish denied that the change had anything to do with new regulations from Congress. Other recent changes, however, are clearly connected to the new law. Chase recently began raising minimum payments from 2 percent to 5 percent for some cardholders and closing the accounts of others. And a new study by the Pew Charitable Trusts shows average credit card interest rates have skyrocketed this year.
A soon-to-be released report by the research organization will reveal that credit card rates went up 20 percent in the first two quarters of 2009. And when compared to the banks' lower costs of borrowing (called the marginal rate), interest rates are up almost 40 percent, said Eleni Constantine, direct of Pew's financial research.
"We want people to know what the facts are," Constantine said.
RED TAPE WRESTLING TIPS
You should know what the facts are. If you are a reward program account holder, double-check your company’s policy regarding points and late payments. And Hardekopf recommends keeping careful watch on your mailbox in the coming months – more statements with small print that could cost you big are likely on their way.