*In the end, this story has a happy ending, but it details a strange experience with Vanilla Reload cards and I thought it deserves mentioning.*
Many of us play the Vanilla Reload game to earn tons of points for expenses we can’t otherwise pay with credit cards. If you don’t understand what I’m saying, just read blogs like Frequent Miler (or pretty much any other blog, really).
I think it’s pretty much second nature for many of us to walk into a drugstore and spend over $1,000 on a credit card without really thinking about it. I’ve often gotten odd looks from cashiers while doing this, particularly when I’ve repeatedly done this at the same store over the course of a month. It’s only normal to us.
Many of us also try to get our family and friends in on the game. I’ve tried explaining the game to my family, though I end up just doing most of the work for them as an authorized cardholder. As for my friends – let’s just say I have a friend who works for American Express and doesn’t even hold any of their credit card products, let alone a lucrative points-earning one. It can get frustrating when they claim they want to make trips but can’t due to the cost.
My sister uses credit cards for cash-back and maximizes shopping portals like the Discover Shopping Portal. While I’ve tried to get her into miles to help fund her travel, she’s happy with cash-back, so I’m happy to help her in that regard. During Christmas, I talked to her about maximizing the 5% cash back on her Chase Freedom card by buying Vanilla Reloads at pharmacies. She signed up for Bluebird, and since I would be visiting her in Atlanta soon, waited for me to guide her through her first Vanilla Reload purchase.
We went to a CVS within the Perimeter – for those of you in the ATL, it was the one across the street from Phipps Plaza. There were 4 reloads on the gift card rack; I picked up 2 cards and inspected the back silver strip. Nothing seemed to be out of place, although in hindsight, there may have been a small blip on the silver strip. I didn’t think much of it at the time and handed them to my sister to purchase for some easy Ultimate Rewards points.
Within a few minutes of purchasing, I logged on to the Vanilla Reload site and scratched the two reloads. Immediately, I knew something was off. The PINs have 10 digits, almost like a phone number; these two were both missing the last 4 digits. I immediately called InComm using the phone number on the back of the cards (1-877-429-8140). Despite it being Saturday night, I was instantly connected to a customer service representative (who was also based somewhere in Atlanta, because she followed up the address of the store with a question for which quadrant of the city it was in, something really only an Atlantan would know to ask). At first, she didn’t quite believe me, and kept asking for the other four digits of the PIN to reload my Bluebird. Once she realized that my PIN was only 6 digits long, she opened a customer service ticket and told me to send in a scan of the receipt as well as the front and back of the cards. I had the option to either fax or e-mail the receipts.
I didn’t have a scanner on me, so I simply took a photo using my iPad and sent e-mails to InComm using my ticket number. The next morning, I got a call from InComm telling me they received the files, and that they would escalate this to a supervisor during the week. I was told I would hear back within 7 business days. Interestingly, I got the phone call while at a restaurant called Ria’s Bluebird (which has amazing breakfast, as well as a rather cheap in-house ATM).
I knew from a thread on FlyerTalk that this had happened before, and that the situation was resolved within some time, so I didn’t think too much about it and didn’t want it to ruin my day hanging out with my sister.
However, I didn’t hear anything from InComm for over a week, and began to grow restless. I called them one morning and got the same spiel that “[I] would receive a phone call when the investigation is over.” I asked to be transferred to a supervisor and asked if I should file a police report since this seemed to be a very serious matter. Immediately I was told that the case would be escalated even further and that it would be resolved the same day. Perhaps I said a magic word.
True to their promise, I received a phone call from InComm a few hours later with 2 brand new PINs that I loaded in real-time to my sister’s Bluebird account. Thankfully, she saw the funds in her account within minutes. Crisis averted.
How to avoid this in the future
As it is, it seems these faulty cards are limited to Atlanta. There is speculation in the Flyertalk thread as to why this is. One reason could be that it was just a bad batch that was sent out to stores in the same region.
However, others have pointed out that InComm is based in Atlanta, in a building that overlooks Centennial Olympic Park. There are ideas that this is a nefarious inside job of people stealing money off reload cards. I don’t buy that, because if it’s true, InComm should be able to detect where this money is going and report these people to the police. But I don’t put anything past this company, so I’ll stay away from the reasons why this has repeatedly happened in Atlanta.
Lastly, while I hate that this happened to my sister, I’m really glad that I was there to run point on this situation, because I knew what I was doing and what steps to take (or at least I felt like I knew what to do). Could you imagine if this was your first Vanilla Reload card experience and you had $1,000 in limbo? Or if you were buying these cards with cash and had an invalid PIN? At least I could initiate a chargeback on the account if my complaint with InComm didn’t go through (while a chargeback would hurt CVS instead of InComm, I would still do it — it’s the cost of doing business).
I really think Vanilla Reloads should have an extra layer of security than the thin tape layer than obscures the PIN, but I’m not going to ruffle any feathers. What I can do is make some suggestions:
- Exercise caution purchasing Vanilla Reloads in the Metro Atlanta area.
- Always keep your receipt!
- Scratch PINs immediately after purchasing to validate that you have a valid card – I do not recommend scratching PINs before purchase because you should only do so once you’ve bought it. Also, try to have a system of what cards are used and unused if you do scratch PINs before actually loading a card. You don’t want to throw out a card that you hasn’t loaded yet!
- Avoid holding Vanilla Reload cards for long periods of time. I rarely have a VR card on me for more than 24 hours, since I load them pretty much the same day. Unlike other reload products, where I have to type in the PIN, amount, and/or zip code purchased, Vanilla Reloads only require the PIN. It doesn’t seem too secure to me. And frankly, while I’m on my soap box, I don’t agree with those who hoard stacks of VRs to load in the following months, since it seems greedy to me. I don’t buy more than I can load within the next couple of days.
In the end, I don’t want to scare off people from this points-earning technique, though I do recommend exercising caution and knowing what potentially could happen. I do want to say that while I didn’t like the situation, I was generally satisfied with the interactions I had with InComm, though wish that I could have had it resolved more quickly.