A better way to monitor reward programs

Wed Jun 27, 2012 11:54am EDT

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(Reuters) - Natalie Wahl has more rewards program memberships than she can track. The Las Vegas mom and blogger figures she has signed up for about 30 programs, give or take.

But other than the loyalty card for a local grocery store, Wahl, 31, said she cannot name other programs that have delivered a reward, and she never really takes the time to check.

"You use them over and over and you never know what you're getting for it," she said.

Wahl's confusion over what her reward programs are earning, and where they stand, is hardly unusual. The typical U.S. household has 18 reward program memberships, according to a joint study by the loyalty marketing publication Colloquy and the loyalty technology company Swift Exchange.

Into the void has stepped a growing industry of reward aggregators - businesses that let consumers keep track of all their programs in one place.

"There's a lot of buried treasure in consumers' wallets they're not aware of," said Swift Exchange CEO Richard Postrel.

Loyalty programs generate about $48 billion worth of points and miles a year, according to the study. About one-third of those points and miles are never redeemed. This is partly because consumers do not know how many points they have, how close they are to earning a reward or when their rewards expire.

ONE-STOP SHOP

With rewards potentially worth hundreds of dollars dangling unused, particularly in the travel industry, services emerging to help consumers keep track include GoMiles.com, MileWise, MileageManager and MilePort. A handful allow you also to book trips with them.

For those who rack up a vast array of rewards from airlines, hotels, drugstores and gas stations, aggregator sites can be one-stop shops. AwardWallet.com, for one, allows you to track 484 different programs. Other point-inclusive programs include Points.com and MyRewardsTree.

"To track awards is time-consuming," said Brian Kelly, founder of ThePointsGuy.com. "A lot of people who rack up the most rewards are the busiest."

Many aggregator sites are free. And they eliminate the need to check 15 or 20 different places to see how close you are to getting a reward, or how soon you might lose one you have not claimed.

"Using one of these sites really is a no-brainer if you want to save time, keep track of all your rewards programs in one place and make sure you're getting the most value out of your miles," said Joshua Heckathorn, president and founder of Creditnet.com.

Zach Dreyfuss, 25, of New York City, said aggregator site AwardWallet helped him snag a valuable reward after it notified him by email he had received a block of frequent flier miles from a credit card company.

"Because of the notification, I was finally able to jump on open award space for a reward flight between New York City and Buenos Aires," said Dreyfuss, who runs a website offering frequent flyer tips, TheTravelAbstract.com.

SECURITY RISKS?

There are some drawbacks. For one, saving time down the road means spending a few hours at the very beginning, inputting your data.

Another concern: putting your log-ins and passwords to many different sites in one place.

"The more entities that have your log-in information, the greater the opportunity for your information to be compromised in the event of a data breach," said Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy for the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. "Depending upon the terms of the aggregator's privacy policy, your information may be sold or shared with other companies."

A search of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse database of breaches shows that none of the reward aggregator sites have had a documented breach.

Generally, the sites agree to not sell your personal information to a third party. But it is in your best interest, before signing up, to check a site's privacy policy, where the company discloses how it handles consumer information.

Kitt Williams Miller, chief executive officer of San Francisco-based MyRewardsTree.com, said her company's business model is built around selling highly targeted advertising.

"It succinctly lets them speak to their best customer and their most loyal customer." She said that while she understands that some consumers might have concerns, her service uses "bank-level" security.

After you spend hours inputting data, you also want to make sure your programs are actually included in the aggregator site you have chosen.

American Airlines, for instance, told AwardWallet that the airline would no longer allow the aggregator to access its data. But loyalty industry officials say that appears to be an isolated case. They add that if anything, companies are more welcoming of aggregators because a consumer who collects on rewards is a happier customer than one who loses them.

Happy customers will often use social networking to boast about getting something for free, thereby touting a brand to dozens or hundreds of people, or even more.

"It's a big deal," said Miller, adding that a customer who feels appreciated is going to spend more.

Wahl said she is willing to give the aggregators a try to see where her many loyalty programs stand, with the hope that she might actually collect on a reward she has earned.

"It would be nice if you could see the rewards you're getting," she said.

(The author is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.)

(Editing by Chelsea Emery and Matthew Lewis)

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