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A mileage mess on my mortgage

Northwest Airlines promises Dave Herstad 18,375 frequent flier miles when he applies for his mortgage. He gets the loan, but not the miles. After several rounds of finger-pointing between supervisors at Northwest, Lending Tree and Home Loan Center, his miles remain missing. What should he do?
/ Source: Tribune Media Services

Q: You may be my last resort so I’m certainly hoping you can help me.

Last summer I applied for a mortgage through Northwest Airlines and Lending Tree that entitled me to 18,375 frequent flier miles. I received a mortgage loan for $105,000, but I’m still waiting for my miles.

Part of the problem is the finger-pointing between Northwest Airlines, Home Loan Center and Lending Tree. I have contacted Northwest customer service and it says the miles have to come from either Lending Tree or Home Loan Center. When I call either of them, they say that the other company needs to pay Northwest for the miles.

I’ve been bounced around between supervisors, trying to get this sorted out. But every time I make some progress, a supervisor leaves and my case is turned over to someone else. Then we have to start again from the beginning. Can you please help me receive some resolution on this issue?
— Dave Herstad, Bloomington, Minn.

A: You should have received your Northwest miles when your mortgage closed. This is a common problem with award miles promotions, because a third party — a bank, mortgage broker, or some other company — typically buys the rewards from the airline and then credits your frequent flier account. At least it’s supposed to.

Phoning Northwest Airlines when your miles failed to show up was a good idea. Following up with your mortgage company by telephone was also a good idea. But staying on the phone was a mistake that cost you more than time. (I’ll explain what I mean in a minute.)

You should have written to Northwest, copying Home Loan Center and Lending Tree. I list all the customer service contacts for the airline on my Web site. Having a paper trail ensures at the very least that you won’t need to explain your situation to another supervisor, because there will already be something in writing.

Repeated phone calls only guaranteed more finger-pointing and a resolution that has taken the better part of a year. But unlike a financial investment, frequent flier miles do not appreciate — they actually decline in value over time.

Just look at the last year’s worth of announcements from any of the major airlines. They’ve made it more difficult to cash in your miles, demanded more miles for award tickets, and imposed restrictions on rewards programs that make your miles easier to expire. The longer you waited, the less valuable your promised 18,375 frequent flier miles became.

There’s no disputing that rewards programs are one of the most profitable parts of an airline’s business (it’s such a moneymaker that one carrier, Air Canada, spun off its rewards program into a separate business a few years ago). It’s equally undisputed that frequent flier programs are habit-forming and can lead to all kinds of bad behavior, from buying an expensive airline ticket to needlessly refinancing your home.

Now, I’m not saying that your mortgage was unnecessary. What I am saying is that promotions like the one you participated in can lead people to make decisions that aren’t in their best interests. Doing it for the miles doesn’t always make sense.

I contacted Northwest on your behalf. The airline asked Home Loan Center about your mortgage, and your frequent flier account was promptly credited for your missing miles.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the host of “What You Get For The Money: Vacations” on the Fine Living Network. E-mail him at .