American Express, the payments company, is facing allegations that it would lure foreign exchange business clients its way by offering them low rates to convert currency only to quietly raise the prices.
People familiar with the matter told the Wall Street Journal that American Express engaged in the practice for more than a decade, with the foreign exchange international payments department regularly increasing conversion rates without alerting customers in an effort to boost revenue and the commissions employees in the unit received. The practice, according to the Wall Street Journal, was widespread in the forex department at American Express and continued until the early part of this year. The employees went after small and mid-sized businesses, a group that represents around one-quarter of American Express’ credit card revenue. American Express is one of the biggest small business credit card issuers in the U.S. and said earlier in 2018 that it wanted to become the number one payments and working capital provider to small and medium-sized businesses.
In a statement to the Wall Street Journal, American Express said it doesn’t have pricing contracts in place for the lion’s share of its foreign exchange customers. “We have training, control and compliance oversight and believe that our transactions are completed and reported in a fair and transparent manner at the rates which the client has authorized,” said spokeswoman Marina Norville. “We constantly reinforce the importance of acting in the best interest of our customers.”
While the forex business is tiny for American Express, it is among a suite of products it offers to its small business customers, which is key to its growth. Current and former employees said the unit went after smaller businesses because they weren’t as likely as big companies to have employees who track forex transactions. When clients did complain, the unit would blame technical issues and lower the cost, noted the report. Employees were also told by managers to keep the details of the payment arrangement “hazy” when talking to would-be customers so they wouldn’t be locked into terms, reported the WSJ. The environment created by the sales commission was to bring in as many new clients as they could and get the most money out of them before they left the business, with employees being told that the average length of time a forex customer did business with American Express was roughly three years. “Who cares if they come or go? Let’s make money while we have them,” one current employee said, referring to the thinking within the unit, according to the WSJ.