Run the equator: Devoured by corporate greed

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Devoured by corporate greed

Does anybody remember Traveler's Cheques? You know, these pieces of paper that resemble money and can be redeemed for cash almost anywhere (at least anywhere where tourists go?) A while ago, when ATMs weren't the norm around the world, traveler's cheques were the preferred currency of people who visited foreign lands. And why? Because unlike cash the cheques, if stolen or lost, can be replaced, allegedly with no hassle, within 24 hours after the loss is reported to the issuer. And I said "allegedly" for good reasons...

Before leaving in April 2007 we bought $1500 in American Express cheques from my bank. We have only cashed a couple of hundreds in Honduras; the rest have been stored in various purses, bags and moneybelts for most of our trip. We saw that we still had them in December and early January. Then, as we got to Turkey we noticed that cheques worth $600 had disappeared. The trouble was... we didn't exactly remember where the cheques were when they were lost. They may have been in the checked-in bag that went missing in Bucharest on the way to Turkey and from which our backgammon and chess games were taken, or they may have disappeared earlier, stolen or simply lost...

Owing to the vagaries of our fast-paced trip we didn't report the loss until we got to India. I spent hours on the phone with the customer service, and the calls were not free - although AmEx boasts a toll-free number in India, phones in this country don't work like any westerner would expect: toll-free numbers cannot be called from most phones or are not actually free (but I should leave the story of the Indian phone systems for later...) I faxed them what they wanted, including copies of our passports, visas and cheque purchase slips, and in the end I landed as a file with a claim-number on the desk of a certain Eva in the Sydney international claims office. I had to tell her the whole story again and on top of that I had to avoid the little traps she was planting in the conversation like "you said you work for IBM?" - "No I never said that, I used to work for Microsoft". I said the same things over and over again a few times although the truth was clear and simple: we didn't exactly know when the cheques were lost, and in which of our bag they were. We had some ideas, but we did not know for sure...

The claim got denied almost immediately because my story was deemed "inconsistent". When I demanded an explanation from Eva, she kept beating the same old horse of the "inconsistent story", and stopped short of accusing me of fraud (although she was implying it). She told me she cannot talk about the details of this claim with me and hung up. My only way of appealing the decision is in writing.

Upon hearing all this I made a little more research in the matter of how American Express deals with claims of lost traveler's cheques. Shockingly, it appears that many claims are denied - people who forget their wallets in taxis, people who have stuff stolen from their hotel rooms, people robbed at gun-point, people who provide police reports, all categories of cases get denied for two all-covering reasons: inconsistent stories and negligence. The lucky ones who finally get their money seem to do so only after an initial denial. The amex buying agreement says that you have to treat your cheques as cash. What that means is not clear, but it gives them a way to get out of their obligation to provide a refund in case of loss - they can always allege that you have not been careful with your belongings, therefore they do not need to pay.

The bottom line is this - I don't have the cheques amymore, they have not been cahsed - or claimed by a money changer - and American Express has my money. Is this me or it seems like I have been defrauded by Big Business, with my own complicity?

The public wave of discontent with American Express' business practicess has even its own Web site, There are just too many horror stories on their message boards to mention...

After this mishap, I have to add American Express to my own personal black list of evil American corporations who treat their customers like dirt, right there with Verizon, Citibank, Comcast and a handful of insurance companies. I will close all my accounts, forget all my passwords, keep all my cash in 100 dollar-bills sewn into my clothes and move to a coconut-tree-covered tropical island... But not before I flood American Express with letters of intent to sue and I get my money back!

Posted from Palolem beach, Goa - India


Cheryl Rice said...

Go get 'em, Rat! You deserve (but certainly can't expect) better treatment from American Express.

By the way, your trip sounds AWESOME. Have fun in your travels.

Big Fat Rat said...


thanks for the encouragements!

It will be a long fight with Amex, but I won't let it spoil the rest of my trip.

Fritz, aka Big Fat Rat

Joel said...

Hey I read your article, I'm working for my local newspaper, I just wanted to know where you got your information about the different people who filed a report?

Big Fat Rat said...


I found the stories that I briefly referred to in my post through a random google search for amex and "traveller's cheques" and by following links from the forums at I remember details about one man saying that he was kidnapped at gunpoint in some African country and forced to redeem his checks at the bank; his police report did not matter when amex rejected his claim; there was also the story of a couple who had their belongings stolen in Vietnam and the police would not cooperate and didn't want to issue a police report (they were probably expecting a bribe) - they were rejected by amex, because they didn't have a police report.

I assume everything that is found on the internet is anecdotic evidence; I can only vouch for my own story.