What’s in a Name? Plenty, When You’re Transferring Points

Oct 26, 2015

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There are plenty of travel sites that tell you how to do things the right way — but as every traveler knows, sometimes things go wrong. In his bi-monthly travel and credit card mistake series, TPG Contributor J. Keith van Straaten invites you to learn from his mistakes — his many, many mistakes.

One of the reasons I love connecting flights through Amsterdam (AMS) is the welcome oasis of people who can spell my Dutch surname — van Straaten — and even teach me how to pronounce it correctly.

I’m fully aware that outside of Holland, my name is a major inconvenience, both for me and others. My last name starts with a lowercase letter, has a space in it and features a double-vowel. Then there’s my first/middle name. I was named James, but throughout my youth and teens I was called by my middle name, Keith. When I became an adult, I finally settled on J. Keith.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock,
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Needless to say, my name has led to all sorts of hassles for me, no small part of which relates to travel and credit cards. In the past couple years, as airlines have been tasked by TSA to make sure travel documents match government IDs, I’ve systematically changed my name in all my frequent flyer programs to my full legal name: James Keith van Straaten.

British Airways Executive Club already had my full and correct name.
British Airways Executive Club already had my full and correct name.

This includes British Airways’ Executive Club, which I use mostly to book awards with Avios for short-haul flights on American Airlines. For a while I had a British Airways Visa Signature Card issued by Chase, but nowadays I populate Avios exclusively by transferring points — usually from Chase Ultimate Rewards at 1:1, earned with cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card. Until a few weeks ago, you could also transfer to Avios from American Express Membership Rewards at 1:1, and I wanted to top off my Executive Club account before the decreased rate of 250:200 kicked in.

I’d had no problem linking accounts and transferring points on the Membership Rewards site with transfer partners like Choice Hotels and Starwood Preferred Guest (as well as soon-to-be-former partner Best Western Rewards). For some reason, though, when I tried to link my Executive Club account to Amex Membership Rewards, I kept getting a strange error: FIRST NAME DOES NOT MATCH.

I checked my profile closely on each side to make sure they both said my full legal name. They did. I contacted American Express via online chat, but when the representative tried to link the account on his end, he met with the same failure — paired with a new wrinkle: He said it wasn’t my first name that wasn’t matching, it was my last name.

Again, I’m used to all sorts of mishaps with my surname. Some computer systems insert a hyphen, while some can’t even handle a name with 12 characters. What was the problem at American Express? Turns out they had my last name as simply “Straaten” rather than “van Straaten.”

There goes my "van." Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
Well, there goes my “van.” Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

I’d never received a document from American Express referring to me as “Mr. Straaten,” but the representative assured me that even though all my statements and cards included the “van,” my official account name was “James Straaten.”

This seemed like it would be a minor inconvenience, but it soon blossomed into a legitimate irritation.

Even though the mistake was Amex’s, it was up to me to fix it — and fixing it involved filling out an online name-change affidavit, uploading a copy of my passport (or other government ID) and having new cards issued for all my accounts.

How I longed to see this screen.
How I longed to see this screen.

I did my part, and then I waited. A week or two later, I got an envelope from Amex; rather than a credit card, it contained a letter acknowledging my request to change my name. I was instructed to fill out the enclosed affidavit and return it with a copy of my passport or other government ID.

The irritation had now become a full-blown annoyance.

I got back on to an online chat with an Amex rep, who said they had no record of my affidavit and ID upload — so I filled it out and uploaded it again.

Guess what arrived in the mail the following week? The exact same letter and affidavit form. This was now officially an aggravation.

I filled out this AmEx Name Change affidavit three times.
I filled out this Amex name change affidavit three times.

This time I insisted the rep connect me with a supervisor or specialist, and just to be thorough (or maybe just out of habit), I filled out the affidavit and uploaded the passport copy one more time.

At one point, NONE of my accounts inked to Membership Rewards were showing up in my profile!
At one point, NONE of my accounts linked to Membership Rewards were showing up in my profile!

A few days later, a specialist called me, apologized for the delay, and told me that my documents had been received and the name change was processed. I would receive new credit cards soon (including the Business Platinum Card® from American Express and Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express) and could link my Executive Club and transfer points as soon as I wanted.

The next couple weeks involved a lot of travel for me. When I got home, I was surprised to find that no reissued Amex cards awaited me. Oh well, the important thing was that their records were fixed and I could do my point transferring.

But when I logged into my account … I got the same damned error message!

Sharon did not inspire confidence that AmEx would get my name fixed.
Sharon did not inspire confidence that Amex would get my name fixed.

I contacted online support again. When Sharon the agent asked, “Am I chatting with JK Van?,” I was not optimistic. But a few minutes later, I got a glimmer of hope when Sharon informed me that she had been able to successfully link the accounts.

Success!? Way to go, Sharon!
Way to go, Sharon!

And sure enough, when I went to the Transfer Points page, I saw my Executive Club account listed and was able to successfully initiate a transfer. I even got a confirmation! Could it be our my long national nightmare was over?

Finally, I see my Executive Club account is linked!
Finally, I see my Executive Club account is linked!

Not quite. On the Points Summary page, I was disheartened to see a listing for a “Partner Transfer” followed immediately by an entry for a “Cancelled Partner Transfer.”


Yessica found a glitch and offers to process the transfer.
Yessica found a glitch and offered to process the transfer.

I hopped back on to the online chat, where Yessica told me that everything looked OK for a transfer and I should try again. I did, and it canceled again. Yessica offered to transfer the points on her end. After a minute, she told me the transfer was successful and even provided a confirmation number. I went back to the Points Summary page and I now had three listings for “Cancelled Partner Transfer.”

Oh Yessica. I had such high hopes for us.
Oh Yessica. I had such high hopes for us.

Yessica’s solution? “There seems to be some technical issue. I would request you to please call the number listed on the back of the card.”

After closing my eyes and gently resting my head on my desk for a moment, I picked up the phone.

A helpful rep answered and again initiated a transfer on her end. “Would you like a confirmation number?,” she asked. “No,” I replied. “But will you please stay on the line with me to see if it went through?” And, you guessed it, my Summary page now showed FOUR canceled transactions.

Four attempted transfers, four cancelled transfers.
Four attempted transfers, four canceled transfers.

“I’ve never seen this happen before,” said the rep, before putting me on hold to check with her supervisor. A minute later: “I spoke to my supervisor. She’s never seen this happen before.” (Well, that made three of us.)

The next step, I was told, was to call a tech specialist at the dedicated Membership Rewards office, which I’ll do someday soon.

Though at this point, it might be just as easy to change my legal name.

The Lessons:

When opening a new credit card account, make sure your name is correct in the bank’s records. Even if it’s right on the card, you never know what’s happening with your name where it counts.

If you have a credit card with transferable points, link the account to its travel partners before you need them. And if you can spare the points, transfer a small amount to make sure they go through. Better to troubleshoot any complications well in advance of a time-sensitive transfer.

Keep trying. Maximizing points and miles can be very rewarding, but it does take a lot of effort and in some cases (like this one) tenacity. I’m not letting American Express off the hook until it can deliver on the service they promised with its product.

Has your name led to travel-related troubles? Any luck on getting them resolved? Let us know in the comments below!

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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