Can You Really Trust Online Mileage Mall Shopping Portals? Or the Biggest Mileage Bonanza Ever, Gone Awry

Randy Petersen posed an interesting question on Milepoint two evenings ago,

Recently an offer provided through the US Airways Dividend Miles Mileage Mall featuring EasyCGI was found to have had some fulfillment problems and a recent statement from EasyCGI that “EasyCGI has never approved or gave permission to be a part of frequent flyer mile program.” seems to be leading to confusion as to if this offer was legitimate or not. If you have any experience with this offer, we’d love to hear from you. Looking for members whose miles have posted, members whose miles have not posted and more importantly, members who have actually been able to enroll in the services provided by EasyCGI so that officials of these organizations can track down exactly what happened.

Wow, frequent flyer miles don’t usually generate mystery and intrigue! Something going on here, and I admit I had no idea what it was.

I did a little bit of sleuthing and I followed the progression of the thread and it turns out that in June there was apparently one of the most lucrative mileage offers I’ve ever heard of and somehow I managed not to be aware of it at the time. Boy, did I miss the boat (and by extension, a huge apology to my readers for not catching it, because I wasn’t able to share this with you).

On the other hand, there’s a drama here and a lot of members out real money with no miles to show for it, so maybe I’m glad I didn’t participate in a promotion that ultimately has me asking,

  • Who is responsible for the offers made on an airlines ‘mileage mall’ site? And
  • Which miles program offers can we really trust?

But before I get there, there’s a really fascinating story to tell. At least this my understanding, based on what I’ve been able to piece together.

Back in mid-June, the US Airways mall had an offer from web hosting company EasyCGI for 4,757 miles per purchase. The offer had no restrictions on product specific purchases, length of service or quantity limits. It specifically said there were no restrictions.

Now, this didn’t seem like a mistake — there was a similar offer being made through the Hawaiian Airlines shopping mall for 7,269 miles per purchase with no restrictions.

But even though the Hawaiian mall was offering more miles, US Airways was the bigger deal — both because US Airways miles have more uses with more partners, and because US Airways was offering a 75% bonus on all mileage mall transactions made by Platinum and Chairmans Preferred members through the end of July. And US Airways sells ‘trial’ Platinum status. So it’s not hard to ‘buy up’ to Platinum to get the 75% bonus, and now the US Airways Mileage Mall offer with EasyCGI was 8,325 miles per transaction. (Do enough transactions and the $600 buy up Is worth it.)

The key here was that miles were being awarded per transaction. Members would sign up for an $11 monthly hosting account, and then could make additional transactions of $1.50 for monthly storage (or buy larger storage options for $4.50). And then they’d make additional $1.50 monthly storage transactions. Lots of them.

10 hosting accounts at $11 per month, and then 110 increments of monthly storage at $1.50 apiece would generate 1 million US Airways miles. Assume that you had to keep the hosting accounts open for 3 months, and your cost for the million miles would be ~ $825 (as a US Airways Platinum, or a little higher with Hawaiian, future million mile increments would be even less expensive since you already now have hosting accounts with EasyCGI and can just buy storage).

$825 per million miles just as one example of how this might have worked out. That’s less than 1/10th of a cent per mile. You can imagine that lots of people generated lots of transactions, expecting to earn lots of miles. And you can imagine why I’m disappointed I didn’t know about this!

Now, this isn’t like yesterday’s AAdvantage Mall offer of 83,000 miles for $5, that was clearly a mistake though of course we’ll all wait to see how this works out. This appears to have been intentional, showing up on more than one mileage site.

Instead, this is more like an even more lucrative version of the December 2009 Track-it-Back offer, where I directly managed accounts that earned in excess of 15 million miles — at a cost of under 7/10ths of a cent per mile. Also through the US Airways Dividend Miles shopping mall.

But this one didn’t work out as intended.

Apparently some members participating in this offer were informed that their EasyCGI accounts were all cancelled and purchases refunded. EasyCGI said that the quantity, pattern of purchase (lots of small web storage accounts) and short purchase activity window led EasyCGI to believe it was credit card fraud.

Well, that was one way to get out of paying the miles for the offer. But when it was demonstrated that no credit card fraud was involved, EasyCGI claims that they had never actually made any mileage mall offers and that it was all done by a ‘rogue affiliate’ (a marketer that they were paying per-signup for new accounts).

Some members had miles award through the miles mall, then those miles awards reversed, with both the Hawaiian and US Airways mall sites. The airlines though say they aren’t responsible, and point the finger at a third party administrator for their mileage malls. These online sites offering frequent flyer miles for purchases made using links on their site aren’t run by the airlines, instead they’re contracted out to third parties.

These companies, just like Fatwallet, ebates, and Big Crumbs, are paid a commission or fee for driving sales or signups. Lots of bloggers have the same kind of arrangements with merchants, e.g. get paid a commission on sales or for pushing credit card signups (as I’ve discussed in the past, I happen not to currently have such arrangements). These mileage malls drive business to their sites by kicking back part of the commission to the customer, in the form of miles (which they’re buying from the mileage program) and keeping a small portion for themselves.

Frequently in my experience miles don’t post, although with a few careful steps the odds can be improved. If you have a shopping toolbar installed, those usually divert the commissions, the mileage mall gets nothing and so you don’t either. If you click on a merchant first, or go through a different site after clicking through the mileage mall, you may not receive credit (as some other cookie may trump the mileage mall). Or if you aren’t accepting cookies. And frequently getting customer service follow-up can be a challenge, since they bank on very large volume transactions with low margins (since the margins are already being given back to the customer).

It turns out that both the US Airways and Hawaiian Airlines mileage mall sites are both managed by a company called FreeCause. Apparently FreeCause has been non-responsive to questions about why transactions advertised through the mileage malls they run haven’t generated the promised miles.

EasyCGI cancelled some transactions, and generally claims not to have made any offers in the first place. The airlines point the finger at their outsourced vendor. And that vendor doesn’t respond.

Here’s what’s interesting. The Mileage Mall is really a vendor buying miles from the airline, but it’s portrayed as though the offer is coming from the airline mileage program itself. It sure looks like the US Airways Dividend Miles Shopping Mall is being presented by US Airways, and they’re the ones who are going to give you miles for your transaction.

But it sure looks like they want you to believe that so that you’ll shop and earn miles which they can sell to their vendor, but they don’t want to take responsibility for the actions of their vendor running the site. And if EasyCGI isn’t paying the vendor the commission, they don’t want to buy the miles to give to you.

And who do you follow up with, with everyone pointing fingers at each other?

It’s a fascinating case, and I wish I had been along for the ride, I didn’t know about it at the time. So I can stand back and ask these questions, because I very much love the mileage malls, I’ve long benefited from them. But when things go awry, who takes responsibility? Or is the customer just left out to dry? And if that’s the case, does it make any sense at all to shop through these portals, or at least to take them up on offers except for purchases you’re going to make anyway?

Ultimately I think that US Airways and Hawaiian Airlines, which have been presenting their mileage malls as a part of their frequent flyer programs, need to step up to the plate and solve this for their customers. Their site made an offer – which doesn’t appear to have been a mistake – and they need to make it right. Whether they make their vendor (FreeCause) ante up, or the vendor makes the merchant (EasyCGI) ante up, or they do it themselves, matters not to the customers. That’s all behind the scenes stuff that’s between the parties to figure out. Otherwise all the customer knows is that they can’t trust the offers being made by mileage programs, in this case US Airways and Hawaiian Airlines.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community Milepoint.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. I did the booking buddy promo for 18 miles per $1 and spent $2,300 on 2 economy tickets for my parents and ended up getting 50k miles from US Air after I sent in the screen shot.

  2. I actually heard from that promo from a finance website and participated as well. I bought about 25 hostings, did not buy any of the addons as I thought they would not count.

    I have been charged in full, and have only gotten about 8k miles, and have been out for the money. EasyCGI is saying they can’t help me because they have no relationship with the mall, and USAir mall is still trying to find out what is going on. I hope US Air is reading this so that they can make good on their offer.

    Now I am expecting about 95k out of the whole deal just to get me an F ticket to Europe but I guess that is mirage for now. I don’t know what to do next.

  3. @Gary

    I got in on this, and believe me it has been an utter debacle so far. Countless hours and hours dealt arguing with customer service reps and escalating the issue as far up the chain of command as I could. I’ve got lots of screenshots, chats, videos, receipts and confirmations (I documented the hell out of this offer every single step of the way cuz I knew sh*t was gonna hit the fan when they realized how many miles they were on the hook for)so hopefully it ends up working out

  4. It always amazes me that when we make a mistake booking a ticket, the airlines hold us fully responsible, we have to pay penalties, change fees or completely forfeit the value of the ticket… but when they mess up, they never own up to anything. It’s just the reality of today’s world that large corporations have rights, consumers have responsibilities.

  5. For me, this just reinforces how untrustworthy an airline, especially USair, can be. Why would they advertise something on their site and then not stick to it? Sometimes it feels like all of dividend miles is a scam.

    I didnt know about this deal, but I do now know not to trust any of these malls. I dont like having to fight for every mile I am supposed to get automatically. I can’t believe USAir and Hawaain and the vendor would treat customers like that.

  6. Any attorneys out there willing to be compensated with some int’l biz class travel for takin this case

  7. I’m one of the people that got on this deal with both US and HA mall. The responses from all involved have been underwhelming from EasyCGI coming up with multiple excuses ending with a claim that they never had a deal for miles (I have screenshots that show otherwise) to the airlines claiming that it is the merchant responsibility to FreeCause not returning calls.

    Thanks for shining some light on this. I hope that the airlines will step forward and deliver on the deal we participated in.

  8. I’m one of the ones that bought in. I had some miles post but get revoked. And while Easy CGI did refund most of my money (their idea, not mine) they are also still billing me monthly for an account I opened!

  9. Looks like AAdvantage and Verizon realized the mistake from yesterday. I just received an email stating (only copied select verbiage): “Verizon’s Terms & Conditions for the offer clearly state that miles can be earned on new wireless service plans only, not accessories. While these Terms & Conditions relieve Cartera from awarding AAdvantage miles for accessory purchases which were incorrectly advertised as including a miles feature, we realize our error may have prompted you to buy an accessory you didn’t need or intend on keeping. As a result, we will be offering you the following AAdvantage bonus miles as a gesture of goodwill as a valued AAdvantage eShopping member:

    We will automatically post 2,500 AAdvantage bonus miles to your AAdvantage account within the next 10 business days.
    We will earn an additional 2,500 AAdvantage bonus miles if you make a new purchase through the AAdvantage eShopping mall in the next 30 days*. AAdvantage bonus miles will be posted to your AAdvantage account within 45 days after the date the merchant notifies Cartera of a qualifying purchase.”

    They clearly had a few typos in their email. So it looks with no hassle everyone will be getting 2,500 miles and then the opportunity to get another 2,500 miles.

    The email also states directions to return your item if you only purchased it for the mile promotion. There will be no fee to return this item.

  10. Actually, just re-read the email and to return the item takes you to Verizon’s return policy, which includes a $35 restocking fee. They will definitely have to fix that for this error on their part.

  11. wow. I got in on the Trackitback and TIB stickers and got my miles both times after fierce fighting. It saddens me how greedy those corporations have become. I did not get on this deal, but I would be suing them given whats at stake

  12. I was also involved with this deal and didn’t receive all of the miles that I earned. The “no such offer existed” excuse bothers me especially since I installed the US Dividend Miles/Hawaiian Miles toolbars which explicitly stated that I would earn 4757/7269 miles per purchase with EasyCGI!

  13. I bought some as well, after shopping around for the best hosting plans, planning on using the service for years. Some miles posted, but most were later deducted. There is no way I will later trust US mall and EASY CGI if they dont honor clear deals.

  14. 1. It is critical to understand that the EasyCGI offer was:
    * NOT a mistake: as it was offered in two different mileage earning amounts on two different mileage malls
    * NOT a glitch: the mileage toolbar that displayed the miles earned showed the same earning for ANY transaction from EasyCGI
    * NOT a loophole: there was no secret codes or strategies to utilize this offer; it was a fully public offer, albeit on an obscure part of the mileage malls

    2. My purchasing conduct was totally transparent.
    * No obsfucation by using multiple accounts, multiple credit cards
    * No incremental purchases over a long period to stay under radar
    * All info in my name, mileage account, credit card, computer IP address

    3. Other mileage mall offers from Endurance (Easy CGI parent company) and other webhosting companies had similar generous mileage earning
    amounts, although none had the ‘no restrictions’ as the US and HA EasyCGI offers. So, mileage amount of offer could not be perceived as an obvious outlier.

    On a different note, there are two troubling issues on a macro level:
    1. If I had not been immersed in this mileage ‘chase’, I would have no idea that there are so many parties in the middle of these transactions.
    Of key concern, is which mileage mall party is responsible for vetting the vendors and/or vendor affiliates to ensure that they have the:
    * authorization to make an offer
    * the wherewithal to fulfill their offers
    * the oversight/consultation to structure sustainable and mangeable mileage earning bonuses and related terms and conditions

    As Gary so a deftly pointed out, I thought my mileage mall offer key parties were EasyCGI and US/HA. Turns out the primary parties seem to be a TBA ‘rogue’ affiliate and US/HA outsourced companies FreeCause and SkyMall. Yikes, the parties I would expect to be responsible, are apparently well-removed from the transaction fray…and there is no effort made to make me aware.

    Suffice to say, the documentation trail of the mileage mall offer and our purchasing conduct, the consistency of our position, the evasive and inconsistent conduct of EasyCGI and FreeCause, the lack of mistake/glitch/loophole as pretext for mileage denial, are the keys to this deal being honored.

    And when the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for the mileage industry, Randy Petersen shares the asssessment that a bonafide offer should have bonafide follow through, we will prevail.

  15. Gary – Great explanation of how mileage malls work and the intermediaries involved.

    Not sure if I remember correctly, but wasn’t the bonus miles on the Track-it-Back offer (which made it such a great deal) provided by US Air, and not Track It Back or the mileage mall?

  16. @Million Mile Secrets that’s my understanding, they wanted to incentivize purchases of miles from them by the mileage mall merchant. Though it’s entirely possible there could have been some cost-sharing involved between the mall merchant and Dividend Miles. It certainly wasn’t Track-it-Back paying the 250% bonus.

  17. As I posted in the Verizon thread, one of the problems here is that the middle men see no risk as to making these rewards, as their feet wont be held to the fire. Airlines make money hand over fist selling the miles, most of which are never even cashed in anyhow, and they CERTAINLY aren’t going to do anything to force one of their larger customers of miles to stop buying them. Courts don’t want to get involved since miles are not money. Sounds like a GREAT scam…That being said, we mileage runners play the game trying to win with what little chance we have, but the decks keep getting stacked against us.

  18. Gary – so it seems that, unbeknownst to the consumer, there are at least 3 parties handing out miles – the mall merchant, the airline, and the mileage mall.

    What is concerning, as you point out, is that the identity of the party handing out the miles is obfuscated making it harder to follow up when miles show up in your account.

  19. ‘Gary – so it seems that, unbeknownst to the consumer, there are at least 3 parties handing out miles – the mall merchant, the airline, and the mileage mall.

    What is concerning, as you point out, is that the identity of the party handing out the miles is obfuscated making it harder to follow up when miles show up in your account.’

    Actually, there could be TWO more parties in the middle of the fray:
    * the mileage mall (SkyMall) outsourced technology and affiliate manager provider (FreeCause)

    * the mileage mall merchant (possibly unauthorized or at least unregulated!) affiliate

    The more I look under the hood at this tangle of parties, the less direct accountability I see!

  20. On an encouraging note, a key management contact at DM zipped me an email on Friday advising me that they have DIRECTLY contacted the mileage mall primary administrator SkyMall to advise them of this situation. As well, my DM contact assured me that Freecause (the mileage mall secondary administrator that SkyMall, not US/DM contracts with) will contact me this week. Which is a relief on two fronts:
    1. FreeCause responded to my first inquiry in early July and since then, it has been radio silence from their Co-President Michael Jaconi. Mind you, FreeCause is the very company that DM Customer Service center redirects mileage mall issues to!!!!
    2. DM recognizes that there is clearly a frustrating ‘hot potato’ game being played with our claim, and they are at least making the effort to help us navigate this mileage mall labyrinthe and offer a continued open and accountable line of communication.
    3. We feel that EasyCGI has generated a series of unwarranted and unsupportable pretexts to deny processing our purchases and mileage earning, but at leat they engaged us in a dialogue, however poor and evasive in content. FreeCause has puzzlingly taken ‘the Fifth’. Methinks that FreeCause LACK of communication is far more troubling than EasyCGI’s simply LOUSYY communication!!!

  21. BTW, I did NOT participate in the AA/Verizon deal because it did not have ANY of the same bonafides as the EasyCGI deal:

    * no equivalent offers on any other mileage mall site
    (EasyCGI offer on HA and US sites)
    * poorly placed, but tangible terms and conditions that disqualified for mileage earning
    (EasyCGI offer was ‘no restrictions’ with no links anywhere to the contrary)
    * only one specific product had the 83K offer
    (every product was eligible, as per the no restrictions T/C)

    And after the fact:
    * Cartera Commerce recognized ‘mistake’ on a seemingly timely basis
    (no proactive contact from EasyCGI or FreeCause or airlines to date)
    * Cartera Commerce identified details of ‘mistake’ and offered some type of redress, whether sufficient or not is another discussion
    (no admission of mistake in content of offer, rather that offer in and of itself was never authorized for mileage mall, yet no identification, let alone redress from supposed ‘rogue affiliate’.)

    So, while no one is quick to supply our EasyCGI miles, no one is quick to issue a firm denial either, just blame shifting!

  22. UPDATE:

    On one hand, EasyCGI claims that a ‘rogue affiliate’ was responsible for their mileage mall offer, meaning they could not keep track of this affiliate’s conduct.

    Yet, in early July less than a week after we contacted FreeCause, ALL of the Endurance parent company subsidiaries’ offers were totally changed (fewer miles, more restrictions) in TOTAL SYNC.

    And late last week, just about every Endurance mileage mall offer on DM was removed in TOTAL SYNC.

    Either EasyCGI all of a sudden was able to get its gaggle of affiliates to operate in lockstep OR EasyCGI had control over the offers directly or on a centralized basis over the affiliates. Either way, it demonstrates that EasyCGI had the wherewithal to have oversight on its mileage mall deals, but simply did not execute effectively or at all.

  23. An intriguing couple of days:

    All of a sudden, a BURST of contact:
    * USAir/DM Manager commits to re-engaging FreeCause to communicate with me, and lo and behold, yesterday, I get an email from President Mike Jaconi. Regrettably, after 7 weeks of an investigative window, Freecause still seems to have no definitive info from EasyCGI….that in itself should be conclusive!!!!
    * HA Sr. VP of Marketing Avi Mannis has confirmed that HA is actively involved in trying to understand and resolve
    * A colleague of mine now has an HA affiliate marketing company, Kobie Marketing Dir of Loyalty Services Carlos Dunlap actively involved.

    Am pleased that we maintained our vigilance with no sabre-rattling, just dogged adherence to the facts.

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