One weird old trick to get American Express business gift card orders approved

Until today, I had never had an American Express business gift card order approved. In the good old days, this wasn't a big deal: business and consumer gift cards both typically paid out at the same high rates, and I didn't (and still don't) have enough credit lines worth manufacturing spend on outside of bonus categories to justify buying more than $20,000 in American Express gift cards per month (the limit on consumer gift card orders).

Since cash back payouts on American Express gift cards dropped from the 4% that used to be typical to the roughly 1.5% they seem stuck at these days, my inability to get business gift card orders approved started to rankle, since payouts on business, but not consumer, gift cards would occasionally be increased 50% to 2.25%, where they sit today on TopCashBack. But even though I have an IRS-issued EIN, and an American Express small business credit card issued under it, my streak of failures continued unbroken.

Declined gift card orders wouldn't have bothered me so much, except that each failed order would tie up valuable credit lines for 7-10 days, effectively shutting down my manufactured spend on some of my most lucrative credit cards for weeks at a time.

Use your last name and Social Security number to get business gift card orders approved

A few weeks back I read in the comments on Frequent Miler's blog that he had success being approved for business gift cards using his last name and Social Security number, rather than the name of his business and EIN.

With payouts on business gift cards up to 2.25% again today, and having just freed up a fair-sized chunk of credit on my Barclaycard Arrival+ MasterCard, I decided I had nothing to lose, and placed an order for two $2000 business gift cards, using my last name and Social Security number. Then I went about my day.

Less than 3 hours later, American Express notified me that my order had been approved — my very first business gift card approval ever.

I'm not loading up on business Amex gift cards today (but you probably should!)

In case you missed it, perhaps because of job responsibilities in the formal economy, today TopCashBack (my referral link) is offering 2.25% cash back on business American Express gift cards purchased after clicking through their shopping portal.

TopCashBack is personally my favorite cashback portal, both because of their consistency in tracking transactions and the ease of requesting ACH payments (BeFrugal, for instance, still requires you to have an open PayPal account in order to be paid electronically).

Personally, I'm sitting out this increased bonus, for 4 reasons:

  • I already have $8,000 in American Express gift cards on order. That's just about my comfort level for having outstanding American Express gift cards, because of the limited range of liquidation options. If my grocery store went out of business tomorrow, I might be forced to slowly liquidate them using Vanilla Visa prepaid debit cards;
  • I don't have any available space on my 2% cash back credit cards. When you manufacture as much spend as I do, and have credit limits as relatively low as I do, sometimes when increased payouts like these come along you will happen to be out of available credit. It happens, you move along. This week I happen to be particularly cramped because my Fidelity Investment Rewards American Express was recently compromised and I'm still waiting for my replacement card to arrive.
  • My alternatives aren't particularly appealing. I have a slew of 1% cash back credit cards, but even with an additional 2.25% earning rate, American Express gift card purchases aren't really competitive with my HHonors Surpass American Express and Flexperks Travel Rewards bonused earning at grocery stores, where I tend to liquidate most of my American Express gift cards.
  • I can't get business American Express gift card orders approved, and declined orders tie up my credit limits for a week or longer. If you've run into this problem, Frequent Miler recently mentioned in the comments section of his blog that he's been able to use his last name and Social Security number as his "business" information. I haven't had a chance to try that yet (and for the reasons above, won't be trying today), but I do hope it works for some of my readers.


This is a fantastic opportunity that comes along every few months to generate a higher-than-usual return on your unbonused manufactured spend. I can't quite fit it into my strategy today, but if you can, enjoy it in good health!

Three notes on gift card purchase and liquidation

There have been a couple developments around gift cards percolating around the travel hacking community for the last week or so. Here's a quick roundup, so readers can use this post to share their own experiences and ideas in the comments.

American Express lowers maximum gift card denomination eligible for cash back

American Express gift cards are a powerful (though not, as some argue, all-powerful) tool for manufacturing spend through the alchemy of adding 1.5% cash back to unbonused spend, in exchange for only being able to liquidate the cards at merchants that will accept American Express gift cards.

As an astute reader pointed out almost immediately when I brought up the subject two weeks ago, cash back portals like TopCashBack have added language eliminating cash back on gift card denominations above $2,000. Since there's a $3.95 purchase fee for each card anyway, I now split my $2,000 cards into separate orders, which also makes transactions easier for me to track.

On the plus side, the total amount of personal and business gift card purchases eligible for cash back remain unchanged at $10,000 and $100,000 per 14 days, respectively. Additionally, I've recently found my American Express gift card orders to be approved almost 100% of the time, a huge improvement over my previous track record and a welcome development.

Staples Visa gift card activation code funny business

As other bloggers have exhaustively documented, the Gift Card Mall Visa gift cards sold by Staples online, and which are shipped out unactivated, have been accompanied much less consistently by the activation codes necessary to activate them.

Sometimes the activation codes arrive days later, sometimes they arrive by e-mail, and sometimes they don't arrive at all. Even worse, the phone numbers that come with the cards no longer direct you to a GiftCardMall representative who can manually activate the cards.

Instead, as reported by Shawn at Miles to Memories, you need to call this number: 1-877-426-2551. The customer service agents there can easily submit an activation order for your cards, and they'll be up and running within a couple hours (sometimes much sooner). For my recent orders, I haven't bothered waiting for the activation codes: I just call the number above as soon as I receive the physical Visa gift cards.

What's the best way to unload American Express for Target cards?

I get asked all the time what I think about various Rube Goldberg methods of buying and liquidating prepaid card products, and I normally have the same response: if you do that, you're cannibalizing methods of manufactured spend you could use to generate additional volume, instead.

Here's a simple example: let's say you have a credit card that bonuses spend at grocery stores, and you have access to PIN-enabled Visa prepaid debit cards at a local grocery store. Once you've purchased a $500 prepaid debit card, you could then register it, click through a cash back site, and buy an American Express gift card to earn an additional 1.5% cash back. This would naturally increase the total value earned on your initial $500 in spend.

The problem is that instead of using a prepaid debit card, you could just buy the American Express gift card with a different, rewards-earning credit card. If that card earned the equivalent of 2% cash back, you'd be earning 3.5% cash back on the transaction rather than 1.5%.

Don't get me wrong: I understand the impulse to earn rewards on both ends of a transaction; indeed, I invented one of the great triumphs of the genre. But the reason such techniques are so few and far between is that the numbers generally don't add up.

An example that came up the other day is the question of the best way to liquidate funds on American Express for Target cards: whether it's shopping through a portal to buy gift cards (see this Doctor of Credit post for vital information about online gift card orders), Simon Malls, or any of the other liquidation methods we have available.

Here's where I find those suggestions ultimately break down: American Express for Target funds are already liquid. You can make ATM withdrawals with the card, up to $400 per day and costing $3 per ATM withdrawal. In other words, American Express for Target loads are the last step in a chain. Whether or not they're also the first step is up to you: if you can load the card directly with a card that rewards bonus points for purchases at Target, that can be a great option. If instead you load them using American Express gift cards, or the many other options available to us, you can get good value that way as well.

But if the problem is that ATM withdrawals are too expensive to make American Express for Target withdrawals profitable for you, the lesson is that the costs and benefits of the technique simply don't work for you, not that you need to add more moving pieces. After all, every one of those moving pieces could simply be funded with a more lucrative, rewards-earning credit card.

Should all manufactured spend go through American Express gift cards?

Earlier this week the BeFrugal shopping portal temporarily raised their payout on American Express gift cards to 2.2% from 1.5%. Several shopping portals (including my favorite, TopCashBack) periodically raise their earning rates on these cards, so many folks wait to buy their American Express gift cards until payouts are increased.

I don't write very much about American Express gift cards because I don't use them very much, but they're extremely popular, and for good reason.

Why buy American Express gift cards?

The argument for buying American Express gift cards is simple: they turn every credit card into a cashback-earning American Express card. Instead of just earning United miles with a Chase United MileagePlus Explorer card, you can earn United miles and 1.5% cash back.

If that sounds to you like it's too good to be true, then you're in good company! Lots of travel hackers find it worthwhile to direct much or most of their manufactured spend through American Express gift cards.

Why not buy American Express gift cards?

There are a number of potential issues to be aware of if you're considering using American Express gift cards:

  • The gift cards are (obviously) American Express cards. Some techniques for liquidation either don't allow American Express cards to be used, or specifically refuse gift cards for purchases (some Simon Mall locations are notorious for this). Plan in advance which merchants you'll spend the gift cards at;
  • The cards are shipped out activated and ready to use, and in my experience usually don't require a signature for delivery. If you have a day job, you may not feel great about having thousands of dollars left out on your doorstep all day.
  • If you order personalized cards, they can take anywhere from a few days to a week to ship and be delivered. You'll need to build that dead time into your strategy, and be willing to tie up the available credit on your cards for days with nothing to show for it;
  • Finally and most importantly, orders are often denied for little or, most frequently, no reason at all. After moving in May, I couldn't get a single order approved for months, although my approval rate has noticeably increased lately.

There is so much more to say about American Express gift cards, and fortunately most of it has already been said by Frequent Miler! Check out that page for a tremendously helpful resource.

Should all manufactured spend go through American Express gift cards?

In recent months I've done as much as possible to tighten up my own manufactured spending strategy.

First I should say that unlike many of my readers, I don't place a high value on my time, or rather, I don't treat manufactured spend as a time "suck:" I do much of my manufactured spend on foot, which makes it feel vaguely healthy; I listen to funny and educational podcasts while I work; and I'm always gathering more news and updates for this blog, increasing the value I provide my readers. So I don't feel the need to put a dollar cost on my time spent, since I love my job!

At the same time, I do put a dollar cost on my dollars, and aim to maximize the value I get from each dollar spent manufacturing spend. For me, that means using cards exclusively at merchants where my spend is bonused, while using my cash back cards at cheap, unbonused merchants and for American Express gift cards.

The interesting thing about American Express gift cards, however, is that just as you can impute redemption values by comparing a 2.22% cashback-earning credit card to a hotel's co-branded credit card, you can also impute redemption values by comparing your bonused earning rates to American Express portal payouts.

For example, when you use an American Express Hilton HHonors Surpass at a grocery store, you earn 6 HHonors points per dollar spent. When purchasing American Express gift cards through a 1.5% cash back portal, you earn just 3 HHonors points per dollar spent — and 1.5 cents in cash back.

In other words, your "bonused" earning rate allows you to buy HHonors points at 0.5 cents each, which is at the high end of the range of real-world Hilton redemptions.

When portal payouts on American Express gift cards are raised to 2.2% cash back, spending with your card becomes an even worse deal, allowing you buy HHonors points for 0.73 cents each. Realistically, you're not going to consistently redeem your HHonors points for that much value.

Within reason, more points are more valuable than fewer points

Everything I've said so far is true, and you can take a look for yourself at the numbers — and the potential problems I outlined — to see whether American Express gift cards make sense in your own miles and points strategy.

However, there's one final issue that's worth mentioning. As regular readers know, I'm the biggest advocate of earning only as many miles and points as you can reasonably expect to redeem, since an unredeemed mile is worse than worthless: it actually cost you the cash back you could have earned instead.

At the same time, within reason, at the margin points become more valuable the more you have of them: 12,499 Delta SkyMiles can't be redeemed for travel, but 12,500 can. In that situation, the last SkyMile you earn is in a concrete way the most valuable SkyMile, since it unlocks the value of all the other ones!

How about a concrete example? I have an upcoming Hilton stay I'm currently saving up HHonors points for:

  • I'll redeem 200,000 HHonors points for a 5-night stay in New Orleans that would cost $820, or roughly 0.41 cents per HHonors point;
  • At 6 HHonors points per dollar spent, that's more valuable than a 2.22% cash back card;
  • But if I instead earned 3 HHonors points per dollar spent on American Express gift cards, I'd fall short of the 200,000 HHonors points I need to receive the 5th night of my stay free, and have to pay 50,000 HHonors points per night instead;
  • 3 nights would cost 150,000 HHonors points and I'd be saving $492 for those three nights, a redemption rate of just 0.32 cents each.

I'd be better off using a 1% cash back card!

Note that these numbers are specific to my own situation. That's exactly why I preach that miles and points shouldn't be earned speculatively, but rather with specific redemptions in mind.

Of course, the other possible conclusion you could reach is that Hilton HHonors points just aren't very valuable!

The "other" 4% cash back portal

[edit 6/9/14: As Milenomics quickly pointed out on Twitter, BeFrugal is currently offering 4% cash back as well.]

As I explained last week, for the time being I don't have access to American Express gift cards. That doesn't mean I don't know that they're one of the most lucrative tools currently available for driving down the cost of manufactured spend: by clicking through shopping portals to the American Express gift card site, you can earn cash back that more than offsets the purchase and shipping fees associated with the gift cards themselves.

The Barclaycard Arrival RewardsBoost mall gets a lot of attention, whether for its relatively high payouts, the 10% rebate earned when redeeming Arrival miles against travel purchases, or the commissions (other) bloggers earn on successful applications for the card.

Unfortunately, the RewardsBoost portal isn't perfect. First of all, American Express gift cards have disappeared from the portal, at least for the time being. Secondly, if you don't have an Arrival card already, you may not be ready to apply for new credit, or have trouble being approved by Barclaycard for a new account. Finally, as discussed in the comments to this post, if you primarily redeem miles and points for your travel needs, you may simply not have enough paid travel purchases to justify running up large Arrival balances; when redeemed for cash back, an Arrival mile is worth just half a cent.

USAA MemberShop

Meanwhile, if you have a USAA membership, you have access to the MemberShop, another shopping portal operated by the same folks who run RewardsBoost and many of the airline co-branded shopping portals. Unlike those portals, however, the USAA MemberShop offers cold hard cash, deposited directly into your USAA checking account.

It's a little tricky to find the MemberShop: from your USAA home screen, click on "Our Products," then "Retail & Discounts:"

From there, scroll down until you see MemberShop, and click "Shop Now."


The 3% cash back offered by TopCashBack ends in 6 days, and as always it's unclear if that means the rate will be going up, down, staying the same, or disappearing completely. If you have or are eligible for a USAA checking account, it's one more option to maximize your return on American Express gift cards.

Charlotte preview: Miscellany

Since I'm currently trying my best to move out of my current apartment, this will probably be my last full blog post before our get-together in Charlotte this weekend. Unless I change my mind. Do follow me on Twitter for live updates from the event, and because Twitter's fun.

This week, I explained how I used Vanilla-reloadables, Visa Buxx, and PayPal My Cash cards to manufacture the bulk of the $43,000 that ended up counting towards the manufactured spending competition I participated in this March. In addition, I did manufacture some spend in new or different ways than usual, and want to share some of that information here.

Staples Gift Cards

I hate the whole gift card racket, and resisted joining in it for a long time. A lot of people say they like spend they can manufacture sitting at their computer, but not me: I prefer to go out and buy something physical that I can keep track of and be responsible for depositing, liquidating, etc. The whole idea of relying on the US Postal Service or UPS for a smooth cycle of spend is antithetical to me.

But, it is very lucrative.

So in March I continued my experiments with Staples $100 gift cards, purchased using my US Bank Club Carlson Business card, which gives 1% cash back on Staples purchases over $200. Ultimately I ended up liquidating those gift cards by paying actual bills using Evolve Money, rather than turning them back into cash.

American Express Gift Cards

I also made my first American Express gift card purchases. I really dislike the whole rigamarole of clicking through portals, checking and double-checking address information, and then having to wait with bated breath to find out whether my order was even approved. If it is, terrific, I get to wait around at home so I can sign for the cards when they finally arrive.

But, it is very lucrative.

So I began experimenting with those, and ended up earning some points and cash back that way as well, although the long turnaround time made it next-to-useless for the purposes of the competition itself.

Alaska Airlines debit card

We found out earlier this year that the Bank of America Alaska Airlines debit card would be retired on May 31 (3 weeks left!). While I did have the card, and was already using it casually, the news that the card would be going away really inspired me to get as much value from the card as possible while it was still around.

I had previously split my Walmart activities between money orders and bill payments more or less randomly, depending on my mood and whether I had an upcoming payment due date. But in March, I resolved to push every single dollar of Walmart bill payments through my rewards-earning debit card, and ended up earning over 17,000 Alaska miles during the month, worth $265 at Frequent Miler's fair trading price of 1.56 cents each.

Unfortunately, as I explained during the competition, virtually none of those miles ended up counting towards my final score, since for any given dollar of "bankroll" remaining at the end of the day, I'd be better off counting credit card spend instead of debit card rewards.


The March manufactured spending competition was a very rewarding experience for me: it helped me raise my game, inspired me to try out some techniques I had only read about before, and introduced me to a lot of great bloggers off the beaten path.

Now I'm really looking forward to meeting some of those bloggers and many of our readers in Charlotte, where I hope to learn a whole lot more!

Update: my first declined American Express gift card order

A few weeks ago I shared my thoughts on introducing American Express gift cards into a miles and points strategy. At that point, I had successfully clicked through to Barclaycard's RewardsBoost shopping portal, purchased a personalized gift card for around $2,000, and seen the Barclaycard Arrival miles post to my account.

As I shared in my April 5th roundup, many shopping portals are currently offering higher-than-usual payouts for these gift card orders, so I went ahead and purchased several thousand dollars worth of business gift cards with my Delta Platinum Business American Express card.

I placed the order on April 7th, and the next morning I received an e-mail from American Express saying:

"Your order was not fulfilled for the following reasons: We could not verify your order information and cannot approve your order at this time."

As has been widely reported, and as a reader confirmed in the comments to my original post, American Express very frequently declines orders based on an algorithm known only to them. It's not a huge deal, although if you're urgently trying to hit a minimum spending requirement or spend threshold, it can easily throw off even the most careful planning.

After a decline, your credit line doesn't immediately become available

When an order is cancelled, it can take a relatively long time for your credit line to become available again. I reported on this odd timeframe in my original post, explaining that my pending March 8 charge disappeared on the 10th, only to reappear as a posted transaction on March 15.

Having experienced my first declined order, I want to share that it appears the same is true with these unsuccessful transactions. The pending charge for my April 7th order remained in my pending charges until today, when it disappeared. However, my credit line in the amount of the charge still hasn’t become available. I expect it will do so tomorrow or Monday.

Takeaway: don’t rely on American Express gift cards if you have an urgent spending deadline

While American Express gift cards are great ways to buy miles and points at a potentially negative net cost, declined transactions can slow you down and keep you from meeting time-sensitive thresholds. If you really need a certain amount of spend in a limited time frame, use a more reliable method.

Should you be buying American Express gift cards?

[update 3/27/14: I've added a link to BeFrugal below, where you can earn 3% cash back on American Express gift cards, the best offer I'm currently aware of. Thanks to @rajiv1po on Twitter for alerting me to that deal.]

One opportunity that has really taken off in the last year or so has been American Express gift cards. These are prepaid, American Express-branded cards that can be purchased online and loaded with up to $3,000 each.

American Express gift cards are not PIN-enabled as most Visa and MasterCard gift cards now available are. Instead, they can be used only as credit cards for in-person or online transactions. That means that many of the easiest methods of prepaid and gift card liquidation are not available. For example:

  • Walmart money orders;
  • Walmart bill payments;
  • Evolve Money bill payments;
  • in-person Bluebird and Gobank loads.

The only options for liquidation are those where it's possible to use an American Express credit card to begin with:

  • Purchasing prepaid reload and gift cards;
  • Loading Serve cards in-store at CVS or online;
  • Amazon Payments;
  • Kiva loans;
  • etc.

In other words, American Express gift cards are not an option to increase the amount of spend you manufacture each month, since the cards themselves consume manufactured spending bandwidth you would otherwise be able to use on credit cards directly.

So why buy them?

Use cash back portals for fun and profit

The reason you might consider paying American Express an additional fee to route your manufactured spend through their gift cards is that these gift cards are eligible for airline miles and cash back through a number of shopping portals. Here are some currently available offers, although these do change regularly:

  • Barclaycard Arrival RewardsBoost: 2 miles/$. Worth 2.22 cents towards travel redemptions;
  • TopCashBack: 2% cash back;
  • BigCrumbs: 1.2% cash back;
  • Delta SkyMiles Shopping: 1 mile/$;
  • Alaska Mileage Plan Shopping: 1 mile/$;
  • [Update 3/27/14: BeFrugal: 3% cash back.]

As long as you don't make the purchase with a Citi-issued credit credit card, then in addition to the points you earn through whichever shopping portal you choose to use, you'll also earn your credit card's rewards currency.

Limits and warnings

Frequent Miler has done the lord's work compiling some frequently asked questions about American Express gift card purchases. Some highlights:

  • Don't use Citi cards [or US Bank Club Carlson - update 3/28/14: see the comments for more datapoints] credit cards for your purchase, as they'll incur cash advance fees and won't earn rewards;
  • Log into your American Express account to see the option to buy gift cards up to $3,000 in value (otherwise you're limited to $500 cards);
  • Personal gift card orders are limited to $5,000;
  • Business gift card orders are limited to $75,000;
  • There are undisclosed time limits on orders as well.

As they say, read the whole thing.

My shopping portal ritual

Historically, I've had terrible luck getting my shopping portal purchases to track correctly. Here's my system for increasing the likelihood of receiving my portal bonuses (I use an Apple computer):

  • Close all open Safari windows and tabs;
  • Turn off private browsing;
  • In the top left corner, click "Safari" and select "Reset Safari..."
  • Make sure all the boxes are checked, and click "Reset;"
  • Open the shopping portal and click through to desired merchant, making the purchase immediately;
  • If I have to remove any items from my shopping cart, I start the process over from scratch.

It's certainly a little bit paranoid, but since I've started using this system all my portal purchases have tracked successfully.

My Experience with Barclaycard RewardsBoost

In the spirit of this month's manufactured spending competition, I decided I'd do my first experiments with American Express gift cards. The best available portal offer I found was for 2 Arrival miles per dollar, so I decided to click through the Barclaycard RewardsBoost portal. Now that my miles have posted, I can share the timeline of my purchase so my readers will know roughly what to expect if they do decide to pursue this opportunity.

  • March 8: order placed for $2,0xx, including $9.95 shipping fee. Used promo code "SYNCGIFT" to waive purchase fee. Received order confirmation;
  • March 8: pending charge appeared in my online banking;
  • March 10: received e-mail from American Express saying my order had been approved;
  • March 10: pending charge disappeared from online banking;
  • March 14, 3:08 am: received e-mail from American Express saying my order had shipped;
  • March 14, 9:39 am: delivery received from UPS;
  • March 15: charge posted to my online banking and Arrival miles received for amount of transaction;
  • March 26: RewardsBoost miles posted to my account and I received an e-mail notification from RewardsBoost. I received miles for the amount of the gift card, but not for the $9.95 shipping fee.

There were a couple weird things that are worth drawing your attention to. Usually when you make a purchase with a credit card, it appears as a "pending" charge, then clears as a "posted" transaction within a few days. In my case, the charge disappeared completely for several days, reappearing as a posted transaction almost a week later. If you are using a credit card with a preset spending limit, you should be sure to keep enough available credit on your account to allow the charge to post.

Most problems with the American Express gift card process seem to occur during the interval between an order being "received" and the order being "approved." No one knows exactly what goes on during that interval, but it causes many, many orders to be cancelled and there doesn't appear to be any way to generate consistently successful transactions.

For what it's worth, for a second transaction I made early today, I received the "order approved" e-mail just 3 hours after the "order received" e-mail: as we say in the business, your miles may vary!