Where’s my letter?


Q: I’m at my wits end over this problem. On October 31, 2002 we booked a trip to France with Grand European Tours through Far & Wide for the next fall. I charged the deposit of $700 on my American Express Card and wrote a check to the tour operator for the balance, $4,972. I also purchased travel insurance from Travel Guard, including default coverage.

In September, Far & Wide declared bankruptcy. I notified Travel Guard and sent in the required forms. They notified me that I needed a denial of dispute letter from American Express in order to recover the deposit. I called American Express and explained the problem and requested the letter. I submitted the paperwork and was told it would take six to eight weeks.

On November 3, 2003, I received a form letter saying that American Express was “initiating a formal investigation.” Please allow six to eight weeks. About a month later, I got another form letter stating I did not give enough information. If I would provide “details” they would be pleased to investigate.

I called American Express more than a month later and explained the problem again. I was told the first process was not done properly. Give it another six to eight weeks, and in the interim, my account would be credited. My account was never credited.

In January 2004, I called again and was told the “investigation is still in process.” On January 28, I received yet another form letter stating I didn’t give enough information. If I would provide “details” they would be pleased to investigate. Several days later I received the identical form letter, but no explanation of what details they needed.

On February 2, I called American Express again and was told process would have to be started over. Allow six to eight weeks. I explained the entire problem for the fifth time. A supervisor assured me that I would have my letter within a month.

A month went by. No letter.

I called two more times, at the end of February and at the end of March. The first time I got through to Bombay, India, and was told it would take another six to eight weeks. The second time I spoke with a supervisor in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who told me – that’s right – that it would take another six to eight weeks. Help!

— Frances Gossage

A: I don’t believe you. Or I should say, I didn’t believe you until I started my investigation. I was almost certain that you had overstated your case (people often do when they file a complaint).

But Frances, I owe you an apology and so does American Express. Your case was completely mishandled from start to finish, and everything you wrote is true.

It’s outrageous.

“We apologize for the time it took to get this resolved,” company spokeswoman Desiree Fish said. “We are sending Ms. Gossage a letter to help her take care of the $700 charge to proceed with her claim with Travel Guard.”

What does American Express have to say for itself? “We dropped the ball,” Fish explains. “I hate to say it, but that is what it looks like.”

Could you have done anything differently? It appears as if you did everything you could, but you might have pushed harder when it looked like you were lost in American Express’ bureaucratic maze. If a service representative is not seeing things your way, politely ask to have your call escalated to a supervisor. And if that supervisor is giving you the runaround, ask to speak with his or her supervisor. Don’t take “no” for an answer.

I wish I could end the column here, but I’m afraid the real work lies ahead for you. My personal experience with travel insurance companies is that they often arbitrarily deny legitimate claims. I hope that doesn’t happen to you, but if it does, you know where to find me.