American Express Automatically Switched Me To Paperless Statements; Is That Legal?

From paying bills online to reading an e-book, advancements in technology have changed just about every aspect of consumers’ lives that used to be printed on paper. But what if you prefer getting your credit card statement in the mail and then find out that you’ve been changed over paperless statements without being asked?

That was the issue for Consumerist reader B. who tells us he received a nondescript email from American Express notifying him that he would be switched to paperless statements.

“Essentially, they’re sending a generic looking email where they’re quietly switching everyone over to paperless without an opt-in,” he says.

The email states:

American Express is committed to providing our Card Members with the best tools to run their businesses. We see that you have an online account for your Business Card from American Express OPEN and we are going to enroll you in online-only billing statements and account communications.

As of your September 2015 statement, you will begin receiving your billing statements and most account communications electronically rather than in the mail.

A spokesperson for AmEx says the notification B. received is the lastest in the company’s migration to paperless statements.

“The OPEN (small business division of American Express) Card Members who are part of this migration began receiving communications explaining the process on June 24,” AmEx tells Consumerist.

While B. raised concerns that company doesn’t provide an opt-in option, never actually asking the customer if they want to switch to paperless statements, AmEx assures us the switch is completely optional – but user must opt-out not opt-in.

“As explained in the communications, these OPEN Card Members may control their delivery preferences by either accelerating their move to paperless statements, or by electing to continue receiving paper statements,” the spokesperson says of the change affecting only customers with active online accounts.

If you happen to be an OPEN card member and missed the email notification, you can expect to begin receiving paperless statements in September. Customers will receive a monthly email notification telling them their new statement is available.

Those who take action to continue receiving paper statements can do so with no additional fee, the spokesperson says.

Notifications such as the one AmEx sent are becoming more common in the financial services arena now that many consumers do their banking online. However, unlike AmEx’s currently stance on not charging a fee for customers who wish to continue with physically mailed statements, many companies require their customers to pay a small fee each month, Pamela Banks, senior policy counsel for Consumers Union, tells Consumerist.

While B. wasn’t exactly opposed to getting electronic statements, he felt AmEx’s email was a bit “sneaky.” But the company’s methods aren’t running afoul of any law, according to Banks.

The Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure (CARD) Act [PDF], which, among other things, requires that financial institutions establish fair and transparent practices, does not include any rules governing electronic statements.

“There is nothing in the CARD Act about electronic statements because such statements were not an issue in 2008-9 when the CARD Act was being put together,” Banks says.

But just because the statements weren’t widely used six years ago, doesn’t mean everyone has brushed the issue under the table as a “too-late now” issue.

Banks tells Consumerist that some consumer groups have continued to lobby for requirements related to paper statements, arguing that physical documents are necessary for people who don’t have the access to the internet.

One group called Consumers For Paper Options has pushed to address the transition to Internet-only resources at the exclusion of millions of citizens who still need paper-based options.

The group, which mainly focuses on government information such as Social Security annual earning statements and tax forms, points out that the “transition to Internet-only information and services threatens to disenfranchise millions of Americans—from low-income individuals and senior citizens to the 25% of citizens who don’t have internet access, or those who prefer personal transactions to divulging information online.”

While there should always be options for people to receive account statements and other important information in physical form, Banks says that financial institutions and other businesses will likely continue their move toward paperless communications.

Banks suggests that consumers who find themselves automatically enrolled in electronic statements contact their bank or credit card company to see what other options are available.