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American Express clawing back points from grocery store bonus on Hilton, Marriott and Delta cards

July 05, 2020
5 min read
American Express clawing back points from grocery store bonus on Hilton, Marriott and Delta cards
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The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has made it impossible for many people to use the travel-related benefits on their credit cards this year. Issuers have quickly responded to this unprecedented change in consumer behavior by adding limited-time statement credits and bonus categories in the areas where people are currently spending the most, including at grocery stores.

American Express issues a diverse portfolio of co-branded credit cards, partnering with Hilton, Marriott and Delta to name a few. Nearly all of these cards are offering limited-time elevated grocery bonuses through the end of July, letting cardholders earn up to 6x Marriott points per dollar at U.S. supermarkets, 4x Delta SkyMiles per dollar, or 12x Hilton Honors points per dollar.

In a move that can hardly be described as surprising, Amex has begun clawing back millions of points from people who it believes abused or misused these bonus categories.

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One person we spoke with had points clawed back from her Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card. There are two things that are especially interesting about the case. First of all, even though most of the transactions she made were similar in nature, not all of her points were clawed back. Second, based on the amount she charged to her card last month, she expected to earn significantly more points than the 241,000 that posted to her Hilton account. This suggests that Amex is not awarding points on certain charges, in addition to retroactive clawback once they post to the account.

Others shared examples of their clawbacks from both Marriott and Hilton, and I've seen data points indicating that these clawbacks stretch into the millions of points, and likely higher.

So what exactly caused these clawbacks? While it's hard to say for sure, it likely had to do with people making purchases that fell outside the terms of the promotion, which state the following:

"Eligible purchases are purchases for goods and services minus returns and other credits. Eligible purchases do NOT include fees or interest charges, balance transfers, cash advances, purchases of travelers checks, purchases or reloading of prepaid cards, purchases of gift cards, person-to-person payments, or purchases of other cash equivalents. Hilton Honors Bonus Points you earn with your Card will be posted to your Hilton Honors account up to 12 weeks after the end of your billing period."

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The most likely culprit would be buying gift cards of some sort. At many U.S. supermarkets, Amex has the ability to see what specific items you're purchasing, not just the amount of your charge, making it easy to weed out behavior like this.

While Amex offers some of the most rewarding bonus categories on the market, it's also by far the strictest issuer when it comes to taking action against customers it believes are trying to game the system. Nearly every American Express credit card application, including co-branded cards and core Membership Rewards earning products, feature the following disclaimer (emphasis mine):

"If we in our sole discretion determine that you have engaged in abuse, misuse, or gaming in connection with the welcome offer in any way or that you intend to do so (for example, if you applied for one or more cards to obtain a welcome offer(s) that we did not intend for you; if you cancel or downgrade your account within 12 months after acquiring it; or if you cancel or return purchases you made to meet the Threshold Amount), we may not credit the Membership Rewards® points to, we may freeze the Membership Rewards® points credited to, or we may take away the Membership Rewards® points from your account. We may also cancel this Card account and other Card accounts you may have with us."

This language gives Amex broad powers to crack down on any behavior it doesn't like, and it's been quick to use those powers before. In the past we've seen Amex take action against people who self-referred to new Amex cards, closed or downgraded their cards within the first 12 months, bought gift cards to meet their minimum spending requirement and more.

Bottom line

Amex can be one of the most valuable issuers on the market, but only if you play by the rules. A vast majority of people reading this post likely took full advantage of these limited-time promotions to stock up on groceries and had their points post without issue. What we're seeing more and more though, is that Amex is willing to use its broad authority to claw back points or close the accounts of people who try to game promotions or do things that are explicitly forbidden by the terms and conditions. Amex has made it clear that it doesn’t intend to sit back and allow people to game the system. With yet another clawback on the books, you’d have to be an imbecile to try and break the rules again.

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