Thursday, July 2, 2009

Letter to American Express

So, I received money through a wire transfer from American Express. Finally.

The lady at Ecuadorian Tours, an AMEX affiliate, asked that I write a report explaining basically that they did nothing wrong. I have a hard time excusing ignorance, but I think the responsibility to communicate is that of the huge company. The following is the report.

" July 2, 2009

American Express
P.O. Box 981540
El Paso,TX 79998-1540

My name is Jay Cameron Allen, and I have been an AMEX card holder for about seven years in total, since sometime in 2002. My father holds several accounts and has been a loyal customer for over 25 years. I am writing to express my displeasure at the way a recent issue, or number of issues, in fact, was handled by various departments within your company. I will tell the tale in sequential order, as I think doing so will highlight and clarify my reasons for having become frustrated.

On Saturday, the 27th of June, I was staying in a hostel in the small town of Vilcabamba, Ecuador on vacation. As I was out, my entire backpack was stolen, which included, amongst other personal items, a laptop computer, an HD video camera, my passport, three credit cards, including my personal Green Card, and cash.

The next morning, the 28th, I was quick to cancel all the cards, and was given some quick advice as to how to address my problem of being left with literally no cash whatsoever. Luckily, I was with some travelling friends of mine, who were saintly enough to lend me what they could afford. Rest assured, however, on a backpacker’s budget, extra cash is scant if existent at all. The money they lent me was sufficient to travel to the nation’s capital, Quito, a few days later after dealing with the police.

On Tuesday the 30th, I entered the office of Ecuadorian Tours, located here in Quito at Avenida Amazonas and Jorge Washington. They are a travel agency with the power to issue replacement American Express cards to those who have lost theirs or have had theirs stolen. The process began at Ecuadorian Tours in the early afternoon.

After four hours or so, many spent on the phone with either my father in Texas or with American Express, we still have not received the authorization needed from American Express to issue the replacement card. The details told were many, however the main issue was that American Express continued to claim that a fax had been sent to authorize a replacement card, while I, sitting next to a quiet fax machine, knew that the reality was otherwise.

We spoke with various departments during this time, including the emergency services department, the CRUSH department, and various others. After over five hours of inaction, filled rather with conflicting stories from all sides, an email was received that authorized the issuance of said card.

The card was issued. To the best of their knowledge, Ecuadorian Tours explained to me the possibilities that the card offered. It was explained to me that the card can be used at ATMs of the Banco de Guayaquil, a local bank here in Ecuador. Sure enough, as I approach the Banco de Guayaquil ATM, I am comforted to see the American Express logo amongst the logos present. The card is thereafter rejected as invalid. I walk to another ATM. The card is again rejected as invalid. The office of Ecuadorian Tours is now closed, as it seems is the door of opportunity for me to pay for food or lodging. For you see, this is now three days after having been robbed, and getting sustenance has become a serious issue.

The next morning, I receive an email from my father. Without money, I have been unable to directly contact either my bank or American Express. He informs me that he has been told by American Express that the card is unrecognizable by ATMs because it has yet to be linked with my bank account in the United States. I, therefore, simply need to call American Express and link the two, so that the money will be taken out against my checking account with Bank of America.

To do this, I must find a place to use the telephone. I head directly to the US Embassy here in Quito, located at Eloy Alfaro and Avigiras. The plan is to deal with my stolen passport, as well as plead for assistance on a financial front. Before the Embassy opens its services to citizens, I walk a few blocks down the road, armed with what I believe to be a defunct American Express card and a few cents in my pockets. I aim to find a place where I can buy a piece of bread or two. As luck would have it, I spot a Domino’s Pizza, and decide that it can’t hurt to try the card there. As I expected, the multiple swipes on the card produce nothing. I suggest to the gentleman that he might try by manually typing the number of the card in. He does. It runs perfectly. I eat, finally. I now assume that the problem is the magnetic stripe.

Back at the Embassy, I discover that they are unable to assist me directly with cash, which I understand. They are able, however, to allow me use of the telephone so that I can complete the task aforementioned.

After another two hours or so, I complete the necessary link between the replacement card that I have been issued and my Bank of America checking account. To do so, I provide my bank account number and routing number for my bank located in San Antonio, Texas. At the end of this activity, I am asked to give the American Express representative a four-digit number that I will not forget. This will serve as my pin number. I understand, at the end of this conversation very clearly, that the pin will be good for a one-time withdrawal, within seven days of its issuance. The maximum withdrawal is five hundred dollars US. We are very clear about this. We are also very clear that this withdrawal can be completed at a Banco de Guayaquil, which as I said earlier, is the only bank of the area to have a direct link with American Express.

After speaking with Bank of America for another number of hours, I head to a Banco de Guayaquil near the hostel on whose floor I`m currently sleeping for a dollar a night, borrowed money. For you see, I have enough confidence in what I´ve been told that I want to be near a place to lock up the loads of cash I`m on the verge of receiving, finally.

The first ATM, as luck would have it, is out of order. The second ATM, around the corner, claims that the card, again is invalid. I go back to the first location to speak with a teller at Banco de Guayaquil, located in Quito Viejo on Bolivar near Garcia Moreno. The teller answers that, even though the magnetic strip will not work, they are not able to do a withdrawal on an American Express card. She directs me to the central location in Quito, at Rio Amazonas and Colòn.

I arrive to the bank at about 17:30, nervous that the offices will surely be closed. Luckily, however, I am able to enter and express my problem. I am told that with some form of identification, at this point my Certificado de Visaciòn from the Ecuadorian Embassy in Houston, I am able to make the emergency withdrawal of up to five hundred dollars US. I am, naturally, overjoyed. After waiting in the lobby for nearly an hour, the guard announces that the national system has died for the day, and that we`re to come back in the morning.

As I head home, I decide to try and coax vendors to use the same method which worked at the Domino`s Pizza restaurant earlier in the day. I am unable to do so. Many seem confused as to what restrictions and options they have being an American Express business. Some told me that it is impossible to manually type in the American Express card number, others that they had no way of communicating with American Express, and others that simply acted as though they were making an effort, which they clearly weren´t. Even the supermarket claimed that they were only able to enter manually card numbers for Visa and Mastercard, excluding only American Express.

This morning, the morning of the 2nd of July, I head back to the Banco de Guayaquil, again filled with the confidence that was incessantly offered me by American Express representatives across the gamut of positions, offices, and departments. As my number is called, I make sure all my documents are in order, and I, with confidence, request the one-time, emergency withdrawal that I have been promised countless times. I am greeted with confusion at first, then denial by the manager. He tells me that the Banco de Guayaquil has no power to give money by any means other than the ATM. He apologizes when I remind him that this literally means whether I sleep in a public park or not and whether, when I finally do get to sleep, my stomach will, again, be devoid of a true meal.

Being that I am still unable to make telephone calls, including collect calls, I return to Ecuadorian Tours to sort out the problem with the magnetic strip on the card. As I arrive, I realize that there is nothing this office, with the information that they have been given, can do about the situation. Luckily, they are willing to offer their phone for a time, so that I can attempt to sort the situation out directly with American Express.

I climb various trees through the American Express departments, which I am used to by now. Before long, I am given some information that, frankly, takes me for a complete shock. I am told that, paraphrasing the magnetic strip on the replacement cards is not functional, rather is put there to make it look like a real American Express card. I am also told that emergency cards have a five day period in which they cannot be used and that I should never have received the one-time, emergency pin number which had been given me the previous day.

Finally, luckily, I am connected to a young lady named Crystal ________. After hearing, nay, truly listening to my story, and having recognized my name and the case from earlier in the week, Crystal decides that she will do what she can to help me. She helps me to clear up the discrepancies that still matter at this point (though dozens still exist in my understanding, or lack thereof, of the process and the system). She decides that we will circumvent the Banco de Guayaquil altogether and instead look for a location nearby that will accept my weak forms of identification and accept the transfer. Within the hour, Crystal has found, along with a Spanish-speaking colleague, a nearby bank that will do just that. She provides me with the proper information, and within thirty minutes of receiving it, I have claimed at the Banco Pro Credit a transfer for five hundred US dollars. Additionally, Crystal waives the twenty US dollar fee that generally comes with wiring of money.

At this point, I am going to move on with the rest of my trip. I lack less than two weeks here, and I am not the type of person to let things continue to affect my mood after the fact. Finally, I am able to say after the fact.

However, there are some take-away points that I would like to share as a loyal customer, coming from a family of long-time, extremely loyal customers. In general, to quote a movie, “what we have here is a failure to communicate.”

This failure to communicate exists at all levels. This failure to communicate manifests itself, ultimately, in the suffering and emotional taxation of a customer. However, more importantly, something that only Ms. __________ seems to realize, is that said suffering and emotional taxation is affecting a human being. This failure to communicate has also caused my personal loss in any faith I had in American Express to truly be where they are needed in a time of true emergency. I almost question how American Express, both as a company as well as on and individual level, would define “an emergency situation.” I can tell you that if I am in an emergency such as this, a five-day waiting period is not sufficient.

There is a communication problem between American Express and the foreign entities bearing their name. Both the Banco de Guayaquil and Ecuadorian Tours are proudly sporting your logo emblazoned on their letterheads, advertisements, and storefronts. However, the fact is that there is a general, though simultaneously profound, confusion as to what the connection between the two entities is. I wholeheartedly deny that any malice was at play with my situation, robbery omitted. However, malicious or otherwise, the damage is still done.

For their part, Banco de Guayaquil seems utterly confused as to what they offer given the relationship they have with American Express.

For their part, Ecuadorian Tours seems utterly confused as to what they offer given their relationship they have with American Express.

I cannot help but put the onus on the entity, of the three, that I know and trust best, to be the leader in clarification of policy, as well as any changes thereof. That entity, as you might have guessed, is American Express. I do not fault the thousands of agencies around the world who have connections with American Express for the lack of communication.

Simply put, I trust you. I have trusted you since I became a cardholder, and likely before that day, as I listened to my father claim the faith he had in your company. I have, in the last week, lost a great deal of that trust. I do not think there is anything that can be said nor done that could ameliorate that damage.

I only ask, for those that experience similar situations in the future, that you take responsibility of leading the discourse on policy. The small businesses around the world that so proudly sport your logo have a right and a responsibility to understand what they can and cannot offer as an affiliate. Because I trust you, much like those who follow me in dealing with such unfortunate circumstances trust you, I implore you to take the lead in solving the problems of misunderstanding, conflicting information, and overall lack of empathy that exist, both within American Express and beyond.

Please, if you have any questions or comments for me, contact me by email. Until the 15th of July, I will be enjoying the little time I have left here in Ecuador, so I expect you will understand if the any reply does not arrive with utmost hastiness.

In addition, I would like to further and more explicitly recognize that Crystal ________, of the hundreds of representatives I spoke with, was the singular person to show empathy towards my plight, as well as to allow that empathy to manifest itself into solutions. Real solutions. This is what I expect from a company such as American Express. Please do not allow future problems to prove me overzealous in my expectations.


Cameron Allen
Card Member since 2002"

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