Don't Leave Home; Your Credit Card is on Hold

By Joel Grover
|  Saturday, Mar 7, 2009  |  Updated 7:50 AM PDT
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Don't Leave Home; Your Credit Card is on Hold

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Why is American Express placing holds and doing financial investigations on longtime card members?

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If you have an American Express card, beware: your card could be put on hold at any moment, even if you think you've made all your payments on time. That means, you won't be able to charge anything on your Amex card.

That's exactly what happened to Cathy Jones, a businesswoman with three Amex charge cards. She got a call from Amex last week saying her cards were now on hold, while the company did a financial investigation to make sure she could pay her bills.

Jones was baffled. She's been an Amex cardholder since 1989 and can't remember being late on a payment. So, to get some answers, Jones and I got on the phone, and called the customer service number on the back of her card.

An Amex representative in New Delhi, India, said because of the bad economic times, American Express is now doing financial investigations of thousands of cardholders. The rep said Amex is insisting these customers fill out an IRS form 4506-T, authorizing the company to get their tax returns for the last three years. The rep told us if Jones didn't fill out the IRS form, they'd cancel her charge cards for good, within five days. And here's the part that concerned Cathy Jones: The rep said these "investigations" were being done, not in the US, but in India.

Jones didn't want someone overseas having access to her IRS tax returns, which contains a lot of confidential information, including her social security number. She told American Express she'd be happy to have her accountant provide notarized proof of her income and employment. But the Amex rep said they wouldn't accept that as proof of her ability to pay her bill.

There is a big risk in having your private information viewed by anyone abroad, according to Jay Foley, of the non-profit Identity Theft Resource Center. He says most foreign countries don't have strong privacy laws, like in the US, that prevent someone from selling your private information, like your social security number.

So why is a major credit card company doing these financial investigations into customers who are apparently in good standing? Is it another sign of the times that credit lenders are running scared? Remember, American Express recently offered certain customers $300 to give up their cards.

I called American Express headquarters in New York, and spoke with Molly Faust in the public relations department. She spun the story very differently than the Amex rep I spoke with on the phone in India.

Yes, Faust said, Amex is requesting additional financial information from some customers. She said it's only in isolated cases, but wouldn't tell me how many Amex customers are getting hit with this request.

When I asked where these financial investigations were being conducted, she wouldn't tell me. When I asked if Amex reps in India could access customers confidential information, she also said she couldn't answer that question.

At least for Cathy Jones, this story has a good ending. Only after I questioned Amex's PR woman about Jones' case, the company did an about-face. They simply asked her a few questions over the phone, and removed the hold from her cards.

Without the help of a reporter, it seems doubtful that will happen for other Amex cardholders in the same situation.

Do you have a story for Joel Grover to investigate? Contact him at: Joel.Grover@nbcuni.com

Click here to check out more NBC Los Angeles investigative reports.

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