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Update: In June 2019, AmEx confirmed to NerdWallet that it updated its system so that eligible spending at U.S. restaurants coming through third-party processors will automatically earn bonus rewards.
Cardholders are supposed to earn 4 points per dollar spent at U.S. restaurants (terms apply — see rates and fees). But some have been reporting that the card doesn't consistently deliver on that promise.
At the time this article was written, the American Express® Gold Card earned 4 points per $1 spent at U.S. restaurants. On June 6, 2019 American Express made further updates to the American Express® Gold Card, including offering 4 points per $1 spent on dining worldwide. Click here for the complete story.
“It became pretty obvious to me when I went through my statement that I wasn’t receiving the correct number of points for all the restaurants I visited,” says Eric Naumann of San Francisco, who applied for the American Express® Gold Card shortly after it relaunched.
While his purchases at U.S. restaurants were correctly categorized as restaurants on his online AmEx portal, some weren't awarded bonus points, as revealed by screenshots reviewed by NerdWallet. Naumann estimates that roughly a third of those transactions on his first two statements earned only 1 point per dollar spent, instead of 4 points.
Naumann said he’s been able to get his points properly credited by calling American Express customer service. But having to go through that step for points he was promised — on a card with an annual fee of $250 — is a hassle that he says makes him less inclined to use the card at all.
Naumann isn't the only cardholder to notice discrepancies. This issue, which has been reported on blogs like Frequent Miler and Doctor of Credit and also noted by users on several online forums, effectively makes the card less valuable for some cardholders. And months later, while AmEx has noted that it’s making updates to ensure more consistent crediting of points, it’s unclear whether the problem will be fixed completely anytime soon.
So, what exactly is going on? Here’s what we know.
The problem has to do with how payments are processed
There are plenty of reasons credit card purchases might not earn bonus rewards as expected. For starters, "bonusing" depends on how the merchants you shop with are classified. You might have a card that offers bonus points on purchases at grocery stores, for example. But if you buy groceries at a gas station, you wouldn't earn those bonus points, since gas stations are classified differently.
This isn't the main issue here, though. With the American Express® Gold Card, a lot of the bonusing issues cardholders are reporting appear to be related to how purchases are processed, not how they're categorized. Indeed, in its terms and conditions, AmEx lists some potential caveats, including this warning:
“Purchases made through a third-party payment account or on an online marketplace (with multiple retailers) will not qualify for additional points. A purchase may not qualify for additional points if the merchant submits the purchase using a mobile or wireless card reader or if you use a mobile or digital wallet.”
These stipulations affect all types of American Express® Gold Card purchases, not just U.S. restaurant purchases. But for cardholders, the impact might be more noticeable when it comes to U.S. restaurant purchases because many of those establishments use payment processors such as Square and Toast, or “third-party payment processors,” as AmEx calls them. Unlike many traditional payment processors used by large, established restaurant chains, these systems are fast and easy for merchants to set up, have simpler pricing structures and tend to offer restaurant-friendly features, such as the ability to quickly manage menus.
American Express has acknowledged the issue with bonusing purchases made through processors like Square or Toast.
“As is noted on our Membership Rewards website, in most cases, card members may not be bonused for transactions through third-party processors,” an AmEx spokeswoman said by email. Whether a purchase is bonused depends on the data AmEx receives from the third-party processor, she said.
Processors like Square and Toast essentially serve as middlemen, generally acting as the merchant of record, processing transactions from multiple businesses in groups. Meanwhile, with traditional processors, individual businesses are able to set up their own merchant accounts and have their transactions processed separately.
“It doesn’t surprise me that it doesn’t work properly,” says David Gold, founder of Golden Peak Advisors, a boutique marketing firm whose clients include credit card issuers, merchants and agencies. While he doesn’t know the specific behind-the-scenes details of the issue with American Express® Gold Card, he worked for 20 years as a senior executive at Chase and American Express and is familiar with how processors like these and issuers operate.
Processors like Square are "very unique in how they process transactions, and the transactions are relatively small and the volume is low,” he says. “So to get it all perfect might be too much effort” for AmEx.
Other dining cards don't appear to have this issue
Other cards that offer bonus rewards on dining seem to process these types of payments without incident. One possible explanation is that those cards operate on the Visa and Mastercard payment networks, which are larger and have to work with hundreds of banks that issue cards. American Express, by contrast, acts as both a card issuer and a payment network, Gold says. That may affect how it deals with transaction data.
NerdWallet contacted Visa and Mastercard for comment on how they handle these transactions but had not heard back by the time of publication.
“I wouldn’t blame AmEx, because AmEx only has the data that’s sent to them,” Gold says.
However, Square says it's reporting the data accurately.
“We don't believe there's a Square issue here, as we report all merchant category codes correctly to credit card companies, which nearly always properly assign points bonuses to purchases at restaurants using Square,” a Square spokeswoman said by email.
When asked for comment, a Toast spokeswoman passed along a message from AmEx after speaking with the credit card company: “Rewards bonusing is handled by the card issuer."
AmEx is working on the issue but hasn’t fixed it completely
For its part, American Express stopped short of promising a complete fix but says it’s working on improving its system.
“We are continually assessing available technologies to enhance how transactions and bonuses are processed,” an AmEx spokeswoman said via email. “In fact, we recently rolled out some updates that will help ensure that more eligible spend at U.S. restaurants through third-party processors is bonused.”
When asked for details about the updates, AmEx said it couldn't share specifics. But it noted that while its disclosures about the bonusing of purchases made through third-party processors still stand, cardholders "should expect to see significantly more eligible spend bonused at U.S. restaurants when they pay through a third-party processor," according to a spokeswoman.
American Express recommends that cardholders contact customer service via phone or online chat if they have questions about whether they should have received additional rewards.
You can contact AmEx about missing rewards, but it’s time-consuming
For some American Express® Gold Card cardholders, this issue is reason enough to use another card for dining purchases. Such is the case for Naumann, who has combed through his statements and filed several requests with AmEx to correct the bonusing of his purchases at U.S. restaurants.
"To their credit, pretty much every transaction I flagged to them, they’ve gone back and added it into their system and given me retroactive credit,” Naumann says. “But ultimately, it’s a fairly big waste of time for a customer to go through their statement every month, identify which transactions received the bonus, which ones didn’t, which ones should have qualified."
For dining purchases, he’s taken to using his Chase Sapphire Reserve® instead. It earns 3 points per dollar spent in this category (for dining not booked through the Chase Ultimate Rewards® portal), compared with 4 points per dollar spent at U.S. restaurants for the American Express® Gold Card. Terms apply. But it’s consistent, Naumann says, so he knows he’ll get the number of points he expects.
How to check your American Express® Gold Card statement for discrepancies
To make sure you’re being awarded the correct number of points on each purchase on your American Express® Gold Card, do this:
Log in to your online AmEx portal and navigate to your American Express® Gold Card account.
Click “Statements and Activity” on the top rail.
Navigate to previous statements using the drop-down menu on the top left rail.
When you scroll down, you should see your purchases listed along with how many points each one earned. Purchases that earned 4 points per dollar spent will be marked with a “4X” badge on the right.
You can expand each purchase to see how it was categorized. Purchases categorized as “Restaurant — Restaurant” or “Restaurant — Bar & Cafe” should receive bonus points, for example, the issuer confirms.