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Complaints Reveal the Sneaky Tactics Credit Card Reward Programs Use

Reports of redemption issues are soaring. Here's how to make sure you're earning the points and miles you deserve

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If you’ve tried to earn or redeem credit card rewards over the last decade, you probably won’t be surprised to hear there’s plenty of criticism. But the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s new report found that the number of complaints has increased 70% compared with before the pandemic. 

The report highlights a range of common issues most rewards enthusiasts have become accustomed to dealing with -- bait-and-switch marketing, unresponsive customer service departments and constant devaluations that make credit card points worth less each passing year.

The CFPB report points to more than 1,200 complaints involving credit card rewards programs lodged with the agency in 2023 alone. Here’s how things shook out and how you can get the most value out of your rewards.

Bait-and-switch marketing for rewards programs

According to the CFPB, most consumers apply for a credit card based on marketing materials that explain the benefits they’ll receive. However, some consumers have complained about applying for a card with a rewarding offer but receiving an “inferior promotion” instead.

The full report from the CFPB shared complaints that the requirements detailed in the fine print of rewards programs’ terms and conditions do not match marketing materials: “They advertise [the larger rewards offer] in big bold letters everywhere. Then somehow sneak the link [to the smaller rewards offer] in front of you,” the CFPB shared from one complaint.

Rewards devaluations

You apply for a credit card promotion, like a welcome bonus, that tells you it’s worth a certain amount, but by the time you redeem your points, the number required to cover a flight or hotel room has increased. That means the promotional offer has decreased in value from what it was originally marketed to you as.

Rewards devaluations are nothing new, especially regarding airline miles, hotel loyalty points and other types of rewards you redeem for travel. 

Many programs that once let users easily see how many points or miles were required for a specific redemption now tout their new “dynamic pricing” models as a way to get more value by booking for off-peak travel periods. The CFPB specifically calls out travel rewards programs in this part of its report.

“Travel providers have a long history of devaluing rewards by requiring more miles or points over time for the same services,” the CFPB wrote. “While miles and hotel points previously were usually convertible according to a set award chart, many loyalty programs have moved to dynamic pricing where it can be difficult to forecast the number of rewards needed for a flight or room.”

One customer complained that they applied for a card, spent years acquiring the miles required for $100 gift card, but when they tried to redeem the miles, the miles required had gone up 25%.

Issues with redemptions

The report also found that consumers have had trouble redeeming rewards due to customer service issues and technical glitches. 

Technical glitches

Credit cards typically advertise the option to transfer points and miles to merchant partners, which potentially offer more value upon redemption than you’d get through the card issuer. However, the value is dependent upon quickly and accurately making the conversion, as travel deals can change quickly.

The report cited technical issues that caused delays or prevented redemption. In one instance, “consumers reported being unable to transfer their rewards when the redemption portal was down for maintenance for a week.”

Customer service issues

Customers complained about speaking to multiple customer service representatives on the phone who gave them conflicting information. Other customers reported waiting “months” to receive a resolution to a rewards-related issue.

Another common problem cited by the CFPB came in the form of “doom loops,” when a card issuer transfers a problem to a third-party merchant partner that can’t solve the issue, either. From there, consumers are transferred back and forth between the card issuer and a merchant in a loop of conflicting information that often ultimately leads nowhere.

Expiring or disappearing rewards

Finally, the CFPB reports that card issuers “forfeit, expire, revoke or otherwise take away hundreds of millions of dollars in earned rewards value each year.” 

The CFPB goes further to say that 4% of credit card account holders lose access to at least some of their rewards every quarter. This is often due to reward expiration, but it can also come about due to unexpected account closures.

In an extreme example shared by the CFPB, one consumer had their credit card account closed in error while having a stash of nearly 1 million points. The card issuer initially told them they couldn’t reinstate their rewards in any scenario, although the bank ultimately gave them back their huge points balance. 

The CFPB also points to scenarios where card issuers may offer a way to reinstate expired or revoked points, but only when consumers pay a fee. 

Tips to make sure you’re getting what your issuer says you are

If you’ve missed out on rewards in the past, or if you’re on the verge of dealing with rewards-related issues, these tips can help you prevent a rewards fiasco before it happens -- and ensure you receive all the benefits you’re due.

Read all the fine print

Before applying, read over all the fine print for new cards and their rewards programs. Doing so can help you uncover any unexpected rules or “gotcha” wording, especially for earning welcome bonuses or spending rewards. It’ll also point out any caps that can limit the rewards you earn.

Also, research your card’s rewards program so you know what points are worth (approximately) and the steps required to redeem them. 

This is especially important with travel rewards programs that may have additional fine print, blackout dates, capacity controls or other hoops to jump through before you can redeem.

Make sure you receive the welcome bonus

Remember that most welcome bonuses require a certain amount of spending within a few months of account opening, but the clock begins on these offers the day you’re approved for the card -- not the day you get it in the mail.

It’s an important distinction since it may take up to 10 to 14 days to receive a physical credit card in the mail once you’re approved. But knowing your exact timeline to earn a bonus and tracking your spending can ensure you meet the minimum spending threshold in time to qualify.

Compare your rewards balance versus your spending

While you may not have the time or energy to track the rewards you earn for every dollar spent, you should have a general idea of how much in rewards you should have earned based on purchases you make and bills you pay with a credit card.

Fortunately, card issuers tend to make this part relatively easy if you’re willing to put in the work. You can track your purchases each month with your credit card’s online account management page or your issuer’s mobile app. 

Keep track of expiration dates for rewards

Keep an ongoing account of expiration dates that apply to the rewards you earn, especially for travel rewards programs. Rewards for most card issuer-specific programs (e.g. American Express Membership Rewards, Capital One Miles and Chase Ultimate Rewards) don’t expire if your account remains open and in good standing.

For the most part, airline miles and hotel loyalty points can expire if you don’t use them or earn rewards. They typically expire in 12 to 36 months.

Also, be aware that some very simple actions can “restart the clock” for some types of rewards that are set to expire. For example, you can often restart the timeline by shopping through an airline’s branded portal to earn more miles, dining out with a frequent flyer’s dining program or by making a small redemption with your rewards. 

Many hotel loyalty and frequent flyer programs let you redeem points for nontravel options that make this last suggestion relatively easy, including things like magazine subscriptions or merchandise.

Where you can go for complaints about rewards

If you’ve experienced issues regarding your credit card issuer or its rewards program, you can file a complaint with the CFPB on the agency website or by calling (855) 411-CFPB (2372).

Make sure you have all the details written out so you can clearly and concisely explain your situation and the problems you encountered.

The bottom line

While the new CFPB report didn’t highlight any specific laws credit card issuers had broken, it does show the agency is taking consumer complaints regarding rewards programs seriously.


This could mean that more action or oversight regarding rewards programs could come into play in the coming months or years.


If you’re pursuing rewards with a credit card, try to stay on top of your rewards balances, expiration dates and other details so you don’t lose any rewards. You can do this by monitoring your accounts, tracking your spending and reading all fine print on card offers before you apply.

The editorial content on this page is based solely on objective, independent assessments by our writers and is not influenced by advertising or partnerships. It has not been provided or commissioned by any third party. However, we may receive compensation when you click on links to products or services offered by our partners.

Holly Johnson is a credit card expert and writer who covers rewards and loyalty programs, budgeting, and all things personal finance. In addition to writing for publications like Bankrate,, Forbes Advisor and Investopedia, Johnson owns Club Thrifty and is the co-author of "Zero Down Your Debt: Reclaim Your Income and Build a Life You'll Love."
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