March 8, 2021

Bucks: Take My Money, Please

This is a story about how a company can manage to turn away someone who wants to give it his money.

Actually, two companies. Here’s what happened.

A week or so ago, I received some mail from Chase promoting its Continental Presidential Plus MasterCard. Normally, I throw this sort of thing away without even opening it. But I live near Newark Liberty International Airport, a Continental hub, so I try to fly the carrier whenever I travel. I was curious.

The Presidential Plus card is the fancier of the two Continental cards Chase offers. (The other is the OnePass card, which is nice, but doesn’t have the same number of perks as the Presidential Card.) It includes access to Continental’s and United’s airport lounges, priority security lines and elite status with hotel and rental car companies. And that’s not to mention early boarding, free checked bags and 1,000 frequent flier miles for every $5,000 I charge on the card.

All in all, it’s a nice collection of amenities. I never fly enough in a year to attain any elite status, but with a card like this, I would get some of that treatment.

Normally, the Presidential Plus card charges an annual fee of $395, making it a competitor to American Express’s Platinum Card (which charges $450 per year). That’s a bit steep, but I was being presented with a special offer in this mailing: If my application were accepted, the first year’s membership fee would be waived.

That got my attention.

I figured this was one of those times where I had little to lose. I mean, why not get the card, if only for a year? For me, that’s three or four flights (maybe more) where I can relax about security lines, hang out in an airport lounge, board early and get a room upgrade when I check into my hotel. Fabulous.

And when the year is almost up, I can cancel the card and feel clever for having gotten something for nothing. Or, after a year of privileges and perks, I can decide I can’t live without it and pay the membership fee for a year two (which, clearly, is what Chase and Continental are hoping for).

I set the offer aside as I sorted through the rest of my mail. This weekend, I thought, I’ll apply.

The weekend came and I pulled out the sheet I had saved from Chase. There was a Web address to apply, I typed it in.

“Thanks for your interest in the offer we have sent to you. Please provide the required information below so that we can locate your offer,” the site said. Then there was a blank entry field next to “12-digit invitation number.”

What 12-digit invitation number?

I looked at the piece of paper I had saved. It didn’t have any codes — just the Web address for the site. I then — if not physically, then mentally — slapped my forehead: I had thrown away the rest of the mailing. The number must’ve been in there. There had been a dozen pages or so and, distracted by other things, I thought it all looked like marketing malarkey so I just kept the cover letter.

So that was stupid. But no big deal, I thought. I’ll just call up Chase and get my code.

I called Chase Credit Cards and explained my situation. The person at the other end had no idea what I was talking about. She suggested I go visit my Chase branch. I asked her if she actually knew if they could help me, or was this what she says when she doesn’t know the answer to something. She was refreshingly candid. “That is exactly what I recommend, sir.”

It was a Saturday and I didn’t have a lot going on, so I went over to my local branch. I sat down with a Chase representative and told him my story. He asked me to type in my Social Security number to pull up my profile.

By the way, my profile at Chase is not thin: I have two checking accounts there, a savings account, a Chase Visa credit card and a mortgage with them. I’m all over its databases. While I’m at it, I also have a Continental OnePass account.

But my man at the Chase branch pulled up nothing on my profile related to the Presidential Plus offer. He made a face. “Let me call my friend in the credit card division,” he said.

A few murmured sentences and he hung up. “Sorry. She can’t do anything for you either,” he said. “Unfortunately, it’s impossible for us to track the offers back to customers.”

That’s too bad, I said. After all, here I am, asking to apply for this credit card, and I can’t because I lost the piece of paper that had some numbers and letters on it.

“Yeah,” the Chase rep said. “It is frustrating. What’s even more frustrating is that even if your friend got the same offer, you couldn’t use his code, as each code is unique and linked to a specific individual.”

This was amazing. “So if each code is linked to a specific identity,” I said, “why can’t you find mine? Surely there’s a database somewhere that says, ‘Sam Grobart equals ABCXYZ1234’ or something, right?”

“I know,” he replied. “But I can’t. But there is an online promotion right now for the Presidential Plus card. Would you be interested in that? You get a $95 statement credit when you get the card.”

Unfortunately, $95 is not $395. The Chase rep agreed that this was true. I didn’t want the card that much, I explained, particularly because I was now aware of a much better offer — an offer that had been sent to me, even.

“You could try calling Continental,” he said.

I thanked the Chase rep for his time, went home and called Continental, not really expecting much.

Sure enough, a representative from Continental told me the airline had no way of tracking the offer back to me. “You know, we may send out another mailing next quarter,” she told me. “If you’re included in that one, you may see this offer again.”

“And for our departing contestants we have some lovely going-home prizes. Johnny, tell them what they’re getting.”

So with this story in hand, I contacted a Chase spokesman, Paul Hartwick. I explained my situation, informed him that I was going to write about this and asked him if it was really possible that, in 2011, a promotional offer from two multibillion-dollar companies could actually hinge on a single piece of paper, as if it were a Golden Ticket from Willy Wonka.

Mr. Hartwick agreed. “Our advisers have the ability to look at offers that have been received by a customer,” he wrote in an e-mail. “In your case, we simply failed to do so and for that, we are sorry.” He informed me that someone would be contacting me to solve this problem.

I thanked Mr. Hartwick for his attention to this matter and his candor, but I also asked him a question: What if other people had this problem and they aren’t writing about it for The New York Times? What should they do? Mr. Hartwick suggested that the matter be taken to a supervisor and escalated beyond that if necessary.

Later that day, I received a call from Chase Credit Cards’ executive office (a higher level of customer service that you can learn more about in this post from The Consumerist) informing me that they were looking into my problem and would get back to me within a day or two. I am awaiting further action, amazed that The Case of the Missing Promo Code is proving so hard to crack.

Have you had a similar experience? Tell us in the comments section below.

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