The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and American Express announced a $75.7 million settlement Tuesday related to illegal practices associated with American Express add-on products, like payment protection and credit monitoring.
The products in question have been discontinued, as have the tactics used to sell and to charge consumers for the products. Though the marketing and billing procedures were the subject of regulatory review, American Express decided to eliminate the following services altogether: Identity Protect/Identity Protect Premium, which were intended to help consumers detect and prevent identity theft; Account Protector, a service through which cardholders could request to cancel part of their outstanding balances under certain circumstances, like disability or job loss; and Lost Wallet, which helped consumers in Puerto Rico replace stolen or lost cards.
“I think at the end of the day we want the same thing that our regulators want, that is to be clear, transparent and fair to our customers,” said Marina Norville, vice president of public affairs and communications for American Express. “I think it was in the best interest to stop offering the products.”
The marketing and billing practices referenced in the settlement include providing misleading information about the products’ benefits, billing consumers for services they did not receive and charging customers unfair interest and fees, according to a news release from the CFPB. As a result, American Express must refund about $59.5 million to more than 335,000 consumers (much of this has already taken place, American Express said in a news release), in addition to $16.2 million in fees, $9.8 million of which will go to the CFPB’s Civil Penalty Fund for consumer payments and financial education.
“We first warned companies last year about using deceptive marketing to sell credit card add-on products, and everyone should be on notice of this issue,” CFPB Director Richard Cordray said in a news release. “Consumers deserve to be treated fairly and should not pay for services they do not receive.”
Norville said the company discovered the issues more than a year ago during an internal review and notified regulators, at which point American Express stopped offering the products. The services were previously available to all American Express cardholders.
In the case of Identity Protect, customers were immediately charged when enrolling in the service, even before American Express and vendors had been authorized to monitor consumers’ credit.
Account Protector and Lost Wallet were called out for clarity issues. According to the CFPB, Account Protector was billed as a way customers could get their monthly minimum payment canceled if they experienced a qualifying life event, when they could really only cancel 2.5% of the outstanding balance, up to $500. That often wasn’t enough to cover customers’ minimum payments. It was also unclear to consumers how long the protection lasted after the qualifying events took place. The Lost Wallet Protector program was confusing too, the agency alleges: In the telemarketing calls used to enroll Puerto Rico customers in the program, a uniform Spanish script was not used, and written materials were all in English, causing customers to be inadequately informed about how to use the program and receive its benefits.
The CFPB enforcement action requires American Express to refund affected customers a total of $59.5 million, pay the CFPB fee and fines from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. ($3.6 million) and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency ($3 million). In addition to ceasing the illegal and abusive practices, American Express must review its other add-on products, as well as submit to an independent review of how it carries out the settlement.