Is it stealing to spend reward points awarded by mistake?

Is it wrong to use reward points awarded to you by mistake?

If your loyalty program awarded you $140,000 in reward points by mistake, would you start spending them?

Well, If you’re Robert Shaw, the answer is yes. He found that giant bonus in his Expedia rewards account and quickly booked himself a flight to see the world. But then the Expedia security team contacted Shaw to, ahem, discuss the error, and he developed some second thoughts.

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Now he wants the Elliott Advocacy team’s help. But for what?

Finding thousands of dollars in mistakenly awarded bonus miles or points might be exciting at first blush. But Shaw’s case is a cautionary tale for anyone considering spending such a windfall. All companies offering loyalty programs have entire security teams dedicated to monitoring for fraud, theft and other shenanigans. So the chance of such a massive error going undetected is minimal. And if you help yourself to reward points you know aren’t yours, you can land in hot water.

$140,000 in reward points awarded by mistake

Shaw says he signed into his Expedia account one morning and was shocked to find a brand new, unbelievably high balance. There was no doubt these reward points had been awarded by mistake.

“Expedia has deposited approximately $140,000 worth of points into my reward account!” Shaw recalled.

And what did Shaw do? Call Expedia and ask about the strange astronomical increase in his reward point balance?


He set about spending those reward points.

Understanding the Expedia Rewards program

To understand what happened here, it’s important to understand how the Expedia Rewards program operates. It’s a unique program in that members can convert their earned points to a cash equivalent through the site. Members can use these cash bonuses to purchase airfare, hotels, vacation packages and any other travel-related product offered on Expedia.

  • For most reservations, members earn two reward points for every dollar spent using Expedia. Airfare bookings earn the member 1 point for every $5 spent on flights.
  • Expedia converts every 140 reward points into $1.
  • To use accrued reward points, members sign into their account and click the “Use my Points” feature.
  • While making a booking, the Expedia points converter will display how many dollars the user has available to apply to the reservation.

Based on the current value of reward points, Shaw would have had to have suddenly spent over $9.5 million on travel to have received $140,000 worth of reward points.

And that’s something he definitely had not done.

Expedia: “Did you spend any of those mistakenly awarded reward points?”

Finding the $140,000 in reward points in his Expedia account allowed Shaw to easily pay for the flights of his choice.

However, his bubble burst before he could make additional plans.

Shaw knew that none of those points were his, and a call from Expedia alerted him to the fact that the company’s security team knew it, too. They had discovered the giant mistake and were also aware that he had begun spending the reward points.

“A security representative called me and asked if I had made a flight booking after this deposit,” Shaw remembered. “I informed him that I did and asked why my points were higher than normal.”

That was a question he might have thought to ask before booking the flights.

The security officer told Shaw that he couldn’t explain further, but someone would contact him shortly. The ominous nature of the phone call concerned Shaw.

That’s when he contacted the Elliott Advocacy team.

Can I keep these reward points given to me in error?

Late one evening, I was reading through our team’s requests for help when I found Shaw’s email. I had to read it several times to make sure I understood. He was asking our nonprofit advocacy team to support his efforts to spend reward points he knew weren’t his.

In general, the Elliott Advocacy team does not mediate cases that involve frequent flyer or reward points:

Are there any cases you don’t mediate?

Yes. Here’s a partial list:

  • Airfares that go up after selecting a flight option (caching).
  • Airline seat comfort issues, including in-flight entertainment systems that don’t work.
  • Any case involving legal action against a company or customer.
  • Asking a company to honor an obvious price error.
  • Car rental damage cases.
  • Cases submitted on behalf of a third party.
  • Compensation for delays that resulted in lost vacation or work days.
  • Getting a refund for a nonrefundable airline ticket or hotel room.
  • Missing or expired loyalty points.
  • Recently lost or misplaced luggage.
  • Visa/passport problems that led to denied boarding.

Some exceptions apply, but generally, we’re unable to get involved in such disputes. If you email me about one of these cases, please don’t expect more than a form acknowledgment. (Elliott Advocacy FAQs)

The reason we don’t advocate loyalty program cases is that no laws or regulations govern these programs. And so our team has no tools to use in a mediation attempt. The companies make the rules — and they can change those rules at any time. So it’s up to the consumer to read and understand all the terms associated with the program. If a traveler doesn’t comply, he/she can quickly find themselves removed from the program, with no recourse.

There have been a few cases, though, that we have tackled (or tried to tackle), with mixed success. These involved stolen miles, which are a very different type of situation from the run-of-the-mill “I let my points expire by accident” (which we don’t ever take).

No, you should not spend reward points that aren’t yours

But in this case, Shaw was asking for reassurance that it was OK to book travel using the reward points he knew did not belong to him.

He had converted the mistakenly added points into a cash reward and purchased an airline ticket. This seemed to be not much different than if he had found $140,000 extra in his bank account and started spending. And we know from recent news reports that customers can end up being prosecuted if they spend money in their bank account that they know isn’t theirs.

I made it clear to Shaw that our team would not be able to assuage his fears about what might happen next.

I asked him why he spent those points.

Is using reward points awarded by mistake really similar to buying a fat-finger fare?

“Well, I have seen conflicting information about this, especially given the earlier precedent of Expedia system glitches resulting in significantly discounted travel fares,” Shaw told me.

It was impossible for me to see the connection between this situation and Expedia’s offer of accidental or “fat-finger discounts.” However, even if there was a connection, the Department of Transportation has refused to force any airline or company to uphold obvious mistake fares.

“If I can keep the reward points deposited into my account, that would be great,” Shaw told me.

I wasn’t about to ask Expedia to allow him to keep these mistakenly awarded reward points. The Elliott Advocacy team helps consumers when companies have wronged them. We want to make consumers whole, and we spend our days dedicated to this mission — 7 days a week. We are not here to help consumers take advantage of glaring mistakes by companies:

Shaw’s request was way off base for our organization.

But he still hoped I might ask Expedia about his particular situation. So I did.

Asking Expedia about his strange case

Shaw wanted to know what Expedia intended to do and if it owed him anything. He also wanted to know if there could be legal repercussions.

“Is there a legal obligation to notify or civil liability in the event they do not remove the points?” Shaw asked.

We don’t have a legal team here, so Shaw’s question was not one I could answer. Only a lawyer can determine if there might be legal consequences for a consumer who starts using reward points given to him by mistake.

But I did follow up with Expedia to find out what the company might do next.

Our friends at Expedia are always helpful. If you’ve got a valid problem with the company, we can help you fix it. For less complicated cases, our research team has compiled a list of Expedia executive contacts that can help you resolve your problem without our help.

I forwarded Shaw’s information to our executive contact at Expedia.

We have an Expedia customer over here who says $140K in reward points were placed in his account by accident (by Expedia). He spent some of them on an airline ticket. He contacted us wondering what will happen next. And he says someone from your security team called and asked him if he spent the points. He told the representative that he did.

Now he’s waiting to hear further about this situation. I’m not sure he’s giving me his correct name or email address associated with his account. The reason I’m contacting you is that I would like to know how Expedia handles this type of thing. (Michelle Couch-Friedman to Expedia)

Book a flight with points you didn’t earn, expect it to be canceled

And I soon heard back from Expedia.

Hi Michelle,
Our team is unable to find the account using the name, email address or phone number provided. There are hundreds of Expedia accounts with the name Robert Shaw.

I did learn that the booking will be canceled if it was made with points that were awarded in error. Just as you’ve said [in the  paper trail with Shaw], it’s similar to if money appeared in your bank account by accident — the bank would likely catch the error and remove the amount.

Our Expedia contact asked if Shaw could provide some additional information since none of the Robert Shaws in her database matched the email our Robert Shaw was using.

When I asked Shaw for his account details, he wasn’t willing to provide any further information. But he told me he suspected that Expedia might be attempting to entrap him.

And that is the last I heard from Shaw. I suspect he won’t be showing up for the flight he purchased using those reward points that Expedia awarded to him by mistake.

The bottom line

Just like your mom told you when you were little: If something doesn’t belong to you — you shouldn’t take it or spend it.

Oh, and don’t ask a non-profit consumer advocacy team to help you get away with shenanigans. That’s not going to happen either.

Should Expedia allow Shaw to keep the flight he booked using the reward points awarded by mistake?

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