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Q: I have been a customer of U.S. Bank for years. My husband travels a lot for work so we rack up a lot of points. I now have around 75,000 and I ordered an iPod Touch around Nov. 26, 2010. On Dec. 1, 2010 they sent it out USPS. The USPS website showed it was checked in Dec. 1 and departed on Dec. 2, then nothing was ever updated.I thought because of Christmas I would give it a few weeks, but it never arrived. I called U.S. Bank at the end of December and they sent out another one on Jan. 3, 2011. It was checked in and departed on Jan. 4. It never came. I called again and they said they have to ship three times before they can look into using another method. So, they shipped another one on Jan. 28 and it departed on Jan. 29. Again, I never received it. I called them again on Feb. 4, 2011 and they sent my file to the research department. I got a call back almost immediately, saying that they sent three iPods to me and they couldn't send any more out and that I could order a different item or use my points to reduce my statement balance. They also said they were crediting back my points. I am glad I got my points back but I want the iPod. I told them in January they had a problem with theft and once I got my item I would no longer use their card. I spend about $30,000/year with them and they just don't care. Now it is a matter of principle!
-- Julie Phillips

This is such an odd situation. I'm wondering if your post office had any explanation for you? In any case, I reached out to Jackie Sisko in communications and public relations for U.S. Bank. She looked into the issue, then informed me that it was resolved -– however, she declined to tell me how, exactly, things ended up or what went wrong with all of these shipments. She also refused to confirm that an item has to be sent out three times before the company will select an alternate shipment method, and she wouldn't give me any advice for other customers who end up in this situation.

So, that didn't get me very far. However, I know from speaking to you, Julie, that the company did overnight you an iPod after we contacted Sisko and you've since received it –- and they didn't deduct any points from your balance. Great news. But I still wanted to provide some general guidance for people relying on rewards programs, and for that, I turned to my friend Bill Hardekopf, who runs the site LowCards.com. Here's what he had to say:
  • Read the terms and conditions. Of course, you know you're supposed to do this, but rarely does anyone read this disclosure all the way through. This is a major misstep, because it's where you'll find all the information you need to know about how the rewards program works. "When it comes to rewards, the biggest thing to be wary of is the expiration date. Some cards do allow rewards to expire, and some may limit you on how many points you can use at a certain time. Both of these can really burn you," explains Hardekopf.
  • Understand the value. Rewards points are, in a way, money, and you should treat them as such. That means figuring out the best way to maximize their value. You want to comparison shop just like you would with any other purchase. In a lot of cases, you're able to choose between a wide range of rewards -– an iPod, as in this case, but also other electronics, tools, gift cards, and cash checks. Compare the value of the item you're thinking of cashing in for to the value of a gift card or cash. "You want to actually go to your local retail store and see what an iPod is selling for, and compare that to the number of points you might have to spend. It takes some research, some homework, but you can save some money that way, and a lot of times, rather than trading for merchandise, you might be better off getting the cash and spending it at a local retailer," Hardekopf says.
  • Ask questions. I stress this all the time, but it bears repeating: If you're confused about your credit card's program, don't take a guess. Pick up the phone and call so you can get all of your questions answered. Make sure you write down the name (and employee number, if they have one) of the person you speak to so you have back up if you're given misinformation.

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