I like to think I’m pretty good at spotting compromised gift cards; I’ve found and destroyed upwards of 1,000 over the last decade. In fact as far as I know, I’ve only actually purchased four compromised cards prior to last week. Then last week, my compromised card count increased by an eye-popping 25% (or 2,500 basis points because it sounds even bigger) when I bought a compromised Pathward Mastercard at Kroger.

Side note: I was already suspicious of that particular gift card because the security flap was too easy to remove, but the store had very low stock, I was in a hurry, and I was heading out of the country later that day, so I threw caution into the wind very stupidly. Don’t be stupid like me, and don’t be afraid to open a gift card in store and inspect it before buying it.

The Compromise

I opened the card in the parking lot, found a few clues that the card had been compromised:

  • The package was held together with super-glue
  • The CVV gummy was balled up
  • Removing the CVV gummy showed a scratched off code
  • The front of the card had four numbers scratched off

I know it may sound difficult to figure out that the card was compromised with nothing but those four clues, but luckily I did! So great.

When you have a compromised card, it’s a race against time to get it frozen and fixed before the card scammers are able to realize that the card was purchased and active, which is why it’s important to open and inspect cards as quickly as possible.

The Fix

I dialed the toll free number on the back of the card in my car at the Kroger parking lot, and I got stuck in Pathward’s automated call system. The system was repeatedly asking for a card number, and then hanging up on me after three failed attempts. I obviously failed every attempt because I didn’t have a full card number or CVV. Entering all 0s, 1s, or random numbers didn’t get me past the call tree, and neither did acting dumb and not entering anything either.

After a few frustrating minutes, I realized that another non-compromised Pathward Mastercard would have a valid number, so I got one of those and used its information, which got me through the automated system to talk to a human. The human was able to freeze the funds on the compromised card and issue a replacement by mail after looking it up using information on the barcode and about how it was loaded.

The Lesson

Gift card companies do their best to avoid talking to humans, and that means when a scammer scratches numbers off of cards, you may not be able to talk to a human when every minute counts. So, the point of this article:

On your phone, keep a list of gift card numbers, CVVs, and expiration dates for old, drained cards for every issuer and card type that you typically buy. Then, if you encounter a stubborn robot phone system, you’ll have quick information ready to get through to a human.

Happy Thursday!

Next up: Following the clues to decipher restaurant hidden messages.

It took me a few long-haul trips before I figured out the optimal length of a flight, here’s the logic I’ve arrived at for choosing the length of long-haul flights when you have options:

  • US to Europe or the Middle East: My optimal flight length is 10 ½ hours, long enough to take-off, sleep for 8 hours, have breakfast, and then arrive
  • Europe or the Middle East to the US: Typically you’re only napping when traveling this way, so my optimal flight length is the one that maximizes time on a wide-body and minimizes time on a narrow-body
  • US to Asia: Flights that leave in the late afternoon or early evening are best for resetting your schedule to Asia time
  • Asia to the US: Again, you’re probably only napping when traveling in this direction, so maximize time on a wide-body and minimize time on narrow-bodies

Happy Wednesday!

Next quick-tip preview: How to behave when visiting foreign tombs.

The American Express’s shutdowns from about a month ago rocked the community. Even though the total number of shutdowns was barely above the single digits, for about six hours, chat rooms, slacks, and forums lit up with discussion, data point sharing, and an impending sense of malaise. I was taxiing for takeoff for a week long international trip right when the news broke. Fortunately (?), I was able to stay connected with inflight WiFi to follow the drama in real time, and I was able to share in the myriad “what if” planning sessions that inevitably followed.

One of those “what if” scenarios was “what if I’m out of town with only one or two cards and I get shutdown?” There’s a simple mitigation:

Always carry cards from multiple issuers when traveling.

If I had been shutdown (I wasn’t), and if I only carried by American Express cards with me (I don’t), I’d have been in a rough spot. When I travel internationally, I carry a card from Chase, a card from Citi, a card from American Express, a card from US Bank, and a card from a local credit union. Some of those cards stay in my suitcase and some in my wallet. If and when I’m shutdown, I’ll be sad, but I’ll still be able to pay for things while I figure out next steps.

Special thanks to CF Frost for suggesting an article on this topic.

Occasionally adult advice from an occasional adult.

EDITORS NOTE: In 2024, I’ve introduced Guest Post Saturdays. If you’re interested in contributing, please reach out! Today’s guest post from community member George, who excels at automation, charity, and is an expert at bridging gaps. Donations for the 501(c)(3) non-profit Girls on Fire can be made online.

One thing I like to do in my free time, when I’m not working at my 9-5, churning, MSing, writing and sharing automation scripts for MSing, or going on trips because of churning and MSing, is mentoring student robotics teams. 

Trust me, I’m going somewhere with this, and it’s probably not where you think.

You may or may not be familiar with FIRST, which is a global robotics community preparing young people for the future. My favorite thing about it isn’t the robots or the coding or the competitions but how diverse the program attempts to be in what it teaches. They say they are “more than robots,” and that’s definitely true. 

One concept I particularly have learned to love is coopertition, which fosters innovation by promoting unqualified kindness and respect in the face of intense competition. I have been inspired by watching teams help each other during competitions and by helping other teams myself. Imagine Duke helping Carolina in the middle of the Final 4. Anyway, if you want to learn more, get in touch.

Now, here’s where I’m going: we should be more like these kids. We should cooperate.

Yes, there are reasons to be secretive in this game. It’s possible that if you give too much away, your plays will die out. However, have we run out of plays yet? Don’t new ones pop up all the time?

I’m not recommending radical transparency, but I do think we should share more. Certainly the more private and insular the group, especially if they are paid groups, the more information there is being shared. However, what credit unions were good for PPBP or what banks take credit card funding are still the kind of thing people often hold close to the vest. And again, yes, one just stopped allowing $15,000 in credit card funding pretty quickly after offering it, and that was probably our fault. But was that going to last forever without us? At least one person reports they were told that it was offered because of us.

Personally, I’ve found that at the right time and in the right venue, revealing sensitive information has come back to me positively multiple times over. Indeed, isn’t that the usual thinking when it comes to charity? Maybe you believe sometimes what you receive in return is some kind of “karma,” but sometimes, you get a new play from the person you helped.

Here’s what I recommend: next time you see someone, maybe someone new, asking for help…. help them. Oh, and if it isn’t obvious, this doesn’t just relate to churning.

Establish trust, then maybe give them a tidbit you wouldn’t share publicly. Even if they share it later, the chances aren’t so high that it will get out into the DOC comments or Reddit or wherever and ruin it, and if nothing else, you will have done a good deed. You may even get something better in return.

Waiting for a Chase Ink card application to stop spinning already.


American Express terms and conditions for new credit and charge card applications famously don’t tell the whole story about whether or not you’re eligible for a bonus. Instead when applying for a card there are just a few rules: If you get a pop-up telling you that you’re not going to earn a bonus during an application, you’re not going to get it. If you don’t get a pop-up, you will. If you get pop-ups on most or all of your applications, you’re in the colloquial “pop-up jail”, or PUJ as we’re collectively calling it.

American Express’s Current Inmate Count

We’ve seen a significant increase in pop-up jail incarcerations in 2024, presumably related to American Express’s concerns about its ability to maintain record profits in exactly the way that Boeing can’t. To quantify this to an (only partially scientific) extent, I used to search for the number of occurrences of “PUJ” on in several time periods:

Month“PUJ” Comments
Jul 20233
Aug 20236
Sep 20237
Oct 202339
Nov 202325
Dec 202342
Jan 202478
Feb 202454
Mar 2024 (month to date)70
The pop-up jail trend according to frequency analysis on

Yes there are measurement errors and biases in this methodology. But also yes, there’s a trend that emerges and matches the general sense in the community that jail is becoming more common.

Breaking Free: Alt

The main method to break out of pop-up jail is to spend a lot on American Express co-branded cards, like a Delta card, Hilton card, or Marriott card. Yes – I understand that “a lot” is rather qualitative, but I’ll quantify it slightly by saying you should be spending well into five figures a month for this method to be likely to succeed.

But, let’s get to the whole point of this post, the alt method:

To get out of pop-up jail, close all of your cards with American Express, wait 90-ish days, then start-over like you’re a new customer.

– MEAB’s tome of apocryphal wisdom

Let’s call this one the “apocryphal sneak-attack” to go along with the related sneak-attack strike back. Good luck, and happy Wednesday!

A different kind of pop-up jail, courtesy of Microsoft.

EDITORS NOTE: In 2024, I’ve introduced Guest Post Saturdays. If you’re interested in contributing, please reach out! Today’s guest post is from a new travel blogger but seasoned financial hacker, Graham, who offers a unique insight in many aspects of the hobby. His prior post on applying churning to changing jobs can be found here and should probably be required reading for any churner switching W-2 jobs.

Traveling for work doesn’t need to be a break-even operation. There are plenty of won’t-get-you-fired tricks to earn a little extra personal return when jet-setting your way to Lubbock Texas to get your barrels cleaned at Scrub-A-Dubb Barrel Company. Here are a few that I’ve found:

  • Meeting Credit Card Sign Up Bonus Spend: Many companies allow you to put corporate travel spend on a personal card, and then reimburse that expense. This is one of the ways I meet my minimum spend requirements for sign up bonuses. I consistently manage to get a few thousand dollars of spend per trip (mostly from hotel stays, occasionally from having the privilege of expensing team dinners).
  • Loyalty programs: Many companies will allow you to put your personal hotel, airline, and rental car loyalty program numbers on work reservations. If your company uses Concur, you can even add those programs to your profile and have them automatically added when you book travel. If your personal travel portal doesn’t support adding the program during booking, you can usually add it after the fact on the provider’s website.
  • Credit Cards Offers: If you can put corporate travel on a personal card, you can take advantage of offers from your bank for spending money at a given company. The more cards you have, the more offers might be available. Instead of looking through the offers on every one of my cards individually, I use to look up the hotel and rental car companies I’m considering using. After filtering by companies that meet my requirements and are within corporate policy, I pick the one with the highest offer. For example, right now Hertz has a $90 back on $350 offer at Amex and Westin has $98 back on $980 at US Bank.
  • Promotions Directly with Travel Companies: Companies periodically offer promotions directly on their website. For example, Marriott is currently offering 1k points and 1 elite night credit per night and United has a Mile Play promotion offering me 2,900 points for taking one flight. I always make sure to add these promotions to my account before booking corporate travel. 
  • Amex Corporate Advantage Program: If you have an Amex corporate card, you might be eligible for Amex’s corporate advantage program. This program lets you save on your personal card annual fees. You save $150 on the Platinum Card, $100 on Gold, $75 on Green, and $50 on Blue. The sign up bonuses when signing up through this program are terrible (eg. a Platinum card comes with an 80k point bonus through this program vs the 150k points you can easily get by opening the application page in incognito mode), however, you can link an existing card to the corporate advantage program after you’ve already opened your card. Just talk to a customer service representative using the chat support option, and they can add it in a few minutes. The fee discount won’t work on the first year’s annual fee if you do this, but it will apply in every subsequent year, making it perfect for cards you intend to keep in your wallet over the long term.
  • Combining Work and Personal Travel: Not all companies allow this, but my company’s travel policies explicitly allow combining personal and work travel. Say, for example, I am traveling from New York to California for work, and I want to go to Hawaii for vacation afterwards. Rather than booking a round trip work trip from New York to San Francisco, and then a round trip personal trip from New York to Honolulu, I’m allowed to book a New York to San Francisco to Honolulu work trip. My company’s policy requires our travel agents to price out the work-only option and the work + personal option, and I only pay the difference. This can often net out to hundreds of dollars of savings when doing personal travel in the vicinity of a work destination.
  • Corporate Discounts and Promotions for Personal Travel: Every company has access to various corporate perks for personal travel. For example, my company gives me access to United’s Break from Business discounted fares. We also have status match offers with United and Delta available internally, which are better than the public ones (eg. the public United status match is valid for 120 days, vs our internal one is valid through January 31st 2025). We currently also have access to a promotion to earn Explorist status with Hyatt. We also have a ton of discounts on rental cars, flights, and hotels through It’s worth taking a poke around your company’s internal wikis / slack / mailing lists to see what kind of benefits you have for personal travel.

While corporate travel can be personally profitable, I should add a few notes of caution:

  • Know the Policy; Stay Within It: Odds are that your job pays orders of magnitude more than the tricks I’ve outlined in this post. These tricks are allowed at my company, but may not be allowed at yours. For example, some companies require all business expenses to be put on a corporate card, if you have one. Getting fired for violating your corporate travel policy to earn a couple hundred bucks would be a very bad return on investment. So make sure to read and understand your corporate travel policy, and never do anything you wouldn’t be comfortable explaining to your director / VP / CEO / misc. corporate overlord.
  • Beware the Cost of Messing Up Reimbursements: Many of the tricks above rely on putting corporate travel expenses on a personal card. If you mess up and forget to submit one expense (or it gets rejected; see point above), it might outweigh all the personal gains from your trip and put you in the red. Make sure you have a reliable system for tracking and submitting your expenses before putting work expenses on a personal card.

About the Author

I love understanding systems, and optimizing for the best outcomes within the rules as implemented (rather than as written, which is a distinction all churners should be keenly aware of). This love has led me to a career in cyber security, to churning, and also to a general obsession with optimizing all things finances. I’ve recently turned that last point into a blog where I write posts like this one (with many more in the pipeline). If you’re interested in that kind of content, there’s a subscribe box at the bottom of the blog.  And if you think I’ve missed something, gotten something wrong, or should write future posts on a particular topic, please drop me a line.

– Graham

Yes, cruise ships have morticians. Side benefits include free travel and reimbursable expenses.

Credit card agreements are full of goodies. The goodilooking for holes in what the Terms and Conditions say, for example by navigating Citi’s T&Cs, we discover a way to earn multiple Citi Premier bonuses back-to-back.

Consider though, that Terms and Conditions also provide a roadmap for where to go looking for new manufactured spending opportunities by virtue of telling you what sorts of transactions may not be eligible for earning points. American Express’s boilerplate says something like:

Eligible purchases do NOT include: fees or interest charges; purchases of travelers checks; purchases or reloading of prepaid cards; purchases of gift cards; person-to-person payments; or purchases of other cash equivalents

Next time you’re looking for new opportunities, look to your card issuer for ideas.

Happy Wednesday!

Navigating the landscape by flipping your view.

EDITORS NOTE: In 2024, I’ve introduced Guest Post Saturdays. I’m still looking for more guest posts, please reach out if you have something interesting to share with the community! Today’s guest post is from Southwest Airlines kingpin and family travel guru, Brian M!

Garden The Flexible Options (GTFO) and travel better! Employing gardening strategies for multiple travel options reserved with flexible change and cancellation terms mitigates the risks of uncertainty and dampens the negative impacts of uncontrollable factors that affect travel.  Moreover, one’s travel plans become more adaptable.  For those about to travel, we salute you!

The concept of gardening a reservation is not new. In the travel maximization context, “Gardening” is the practice of booking and monitoring a travel reservation while consistently analyzing whether the booked reservation (which may have been impacted by some outside factor like a schedule change) may be efficiently improved through some sort of action(s) or change(s) and the activity of undertaking that action or change to improve the subject reservation.   When factors affect a reservation that one is monitoring, then one may be able to (or may have to) undertake some action that could lead to an improved reservation. Always be probing the alternatives of a reservation to determine whether inaction, a change, or a cancellation may be the best decision. Deals can vary at original booking and over time; so, using and revisiting different levels of one’s travel waterfall of techniques is essential.  

Flexible reservations are also not new; but, flexibility does have value. Most car rentals have long had very flexible cancellation terms.  And, many hotel reservations have had flexible change and cancellation terms.  More recently, flight reservations issued by more carriers, especially through their award loyalty programs, have become more flexible.  Importantly, flexibility may be free!  Okay, that’s not quite true because even if there is no monetary cost to a change or cancellation, one would still need to undertake the effort to book, change, or cancel a reservation (so, there is an expenditure of time and effort) and there’s an opportunity cost of those points or miles.  Regardless, booking flexible rates/fares can preserve the ability to be ready for uncertainty, including both known unknowns and unknown unknowns. Fares and rates may drop. Flight times may change. New, more preferred, flights may become available. Accommodation amenities may close. Natural disasters may impact a destination. A car type may no longer be available or suitable. A travel companion may become ill or simply decide to no longer travel. To be impacted by an external force is human; to prepare for uncertainty is divine.  Changes will happen and the adept can adapt by gardening existing flexible reservations. When the reservation gets tough, the tough garden the flexible reservation!

Options in travel, like in life, are important. Reserving multiple flexible options for aspects of travel or flexible options for entire trips enables one to gain more value and empowers one with more control to exercise the desired option (and cancel the undesired flexible option(s)) when it becomes time to strike. Furthermore, gardening those options amplifies the value and control unlocked by flexible change and cancellation terms. Could one sow one’s travel field with inexpensive option seeds with the intent that some schedule change or weather lemons may grow to produce a bushel of opportunities and enjoy some refreshing non-stop lemonade? However, to reserve multiple flexible options with award program currencies, one must earn those currencies first. Miles need to be earned before they can be burned.  So, earning a sufficient volume of miles and points can be helpful to book early and book often. But, what volume may be sufficient varies and could be lower than may initially seem to be required given the ability to reduce, reuse, and recycle miles and points over time as options are canceled and changed. Miles burned for a reservation may rise like a phoenix from the ashes of cancellation ready to fly into action for the next reservation. Consideration about how to option the travel is also important – which traveler(s)? which flight(s)? which accommodation(s)? which date(s)/night(s)? which elite benefit(s)? which booking method? Considerations are unique for each aspect of each trip for each traveler. 

And, putting these three concepts together creates a travel strategy greater than the sum of its parts empowering one to travel better. A trip that may have been originally booked with a 2-stop flight itinerary on a less preferred day to a counter pick up for an expensive compact rental car to drive to the Hyatt Place Lubbock may be gardened to become become a better option – a non-stop flight to stroll directly to the rental car aisle to choose any inexpensive full-size car to drive to the Hyatt Regency Wichita after freely canceling non-preferred flexible alternatives. However, time, effort, and organization are mandatory to the success of any GTFO travel strategy.  So, determining how deep to dive into each aspect can be critical to maintaining sanity and avoiding The Optimizer’s Curse. Therefore, too many specifics related to a GTFO travel strategy would be imprudent. One must decide for oneself whether to, when to, and how much to utilize such a travel strategy. Of course, there are risks associated with the strategy beyond loss of sanity, including that duplicate reservations may be automatically canceled by the travel provider. Furthermore, speculation is undesirable: one must decide for oneself where to draw one’s own line – how far is too far and what may create too much risk given potential adverse consequences.

Travel is about the journey and the destination. So, utilize a GTFO travel strategy to burn some miles to GET THE F* OUT – both to travel better than one otherwise might and to spend less! Or, don’t travel – cash-out miles and improve life in a different way! No matter what, miles earned are only worth the value gained when burned. 

“Better to be prepared for an opportunity and not have one, than to have an opportunity and not be prepared.” Travel opportunity is knocking and you may have the option to seize it today while maintaining the flexibility to seize a different opportunity tomorrow by gardening each of those seized opportunities until one becomes the best option.

– Brian M

Preparing to garden a few existing bookings.