The Case of the Missing Vanilla Reload PIN

*In the end, this story has a happy ending, but it details a strange experience with Vanilla Reload cards and I thought it deserves mentioning.*

picture of Vanilla reload card

The photo just seemed naked without an arrow.

Many of us play the Vanilla Reload game to earn tons of points for expenses we can’t otherwise pay with credit cards. If you don’t understand what I’m saying, just read blogs like Frequent Miler (or pretty much any other blog, really).

I think it’s pretty much second nature for many of us to walk into a drugstore and spend over $1,000 on a credit card without really thinking about it. I’ve often gotten odd looks from cashiers while doing this, particularly when I’ve repeatedly done this at the same store over the course of a month. It’s only normal to us.

Many of us also try to get our family and friends in on the game. I’ve tried explaining the game to my family, though I end up just doing most of the work for them as an authorized cardholder. As for my friends – let’s just say I have a friend who works for American Express and doesn’t even hold any of their credit card products, let alone a lucrative points-earning one. It can get frustrating when they claim they want to make trips but can’t due to the cost.

My sister uses credit cards for cash-back and maximizes shopping portals like the Discover Shopping Portal. While I’ve tried to get her into miles to help fund her travel, she’s happy with cash-back, so I’m happy to help her in that regard. During Christmas, I talked to her about maximizing the 5% cash back on her Chase Freedom card by buying Vanilla Reloads at pharmacies. She signed up for Bluebird, and since I would be visiting her in Atlanta soon, waited for me to guide her through her first Vanilla Reload purchase.

The story

We went to a CVS within the Perimeter – for those of you in the ATL, it was the one across the street from Phipps Plaza. There were 4 reloads on the gift card rack; I picked up 2 cards and inspected the back silver strip. Nothing seemed to be out of place, although in hindsight, there may have been a small blip on the silver strip. I didn’t think much of it at the time and handed them to my sister to purchase for some easy Ultimate Rewards points.

Within a few minutes of purchasing, I logged on to the Vanilla Reload site and scratched the two reloads. Immediately, I knew something was off. The PINs have 10 digits, almost like a phone number; these two were both missing the last 4 digits. I immediately called InComm using the phone number on the back of the cards (1-877-429-8140). Despite it being Saturday night, I was instantly connected to a customer service representative (who was also based somewhere in Atlanta, because she followed up the address of the store with a question for which quadrant of the city it was in, something really only an Atlantan would know to ask). At first, she didn’t quite believe me, and kept asking for the other four digits of the PIN to reload my Bluebird. Once she realized that my PIN was only 6 digits long, she opened a customer service ticket and told me to send in a scan of the receipt as well as the front and back of the cards. I had the option to either fax or e-mail the receipts.

I didn’t have a scanner on me, so I simply took a photo using my iPad and sent e-mails to InComm using my ticket number. The next morning, I got a call from InComm telling me they received the files, and that they would escalate this to a supervisor during the week. I was told I would hear back within 7 business days. Interestingly, I got the phone call while at a restaurant called Ria’s Bluebird (which has amazing breakfast, as well as a rather cheap in-house ATM).

I also can't get past the fact that they have a cheap ATM within the restaurant.

The breakfast of a points junkie.

I knew from a thread on FlyerTalk that this had happened before, and that the situation was resolved within some time, so I didn’t think too much about it and didn’t want it to ruin my day hanging out with my sister.

However, I didn’t hear anything from InComm for over a week, and began to grow restless. I called them one morning and got the same spiel that “[I] would receive a phone call when the investigation is over.” I asked to be transferred to a supervisor and asked if I should file a police report since this seemed to be a very serious matter. Immediately I was told that the case would be escalated even further and that it would be resolved the same day. Perhaps I said a magic word.

True to their promise, I received a phone call from InComm a few hours later with 2 brand new PINs that I loaded in real-time to my sister’s Bluebird account. Thankfully, she saw the funds in her account within minutes. Crisis averted.

How to avoid this in the future

As it is, it seems these faulty cards are limited to Atlanta. There is speculation in the Flyertalk thread as to why this is. One reason could be that it was just a bad batch that was sent out to stores in the same region.

However, others have pointed out that InComm is based in Atlanta, in a building that overlooks Centennial Olympic Park. There are ideas that this is a nefarious inside job of people stealing money off reload cards. I don’t buy that, because if it’s true, InComm should be able to detect where this money is going and report these people to the police. But I don’t put anything past this company, so I’ll stay away from the reasons why this has repeatedly happened in Atlanta.

Lastly, while I hate that this happened to my sister, I’m really glad that I was there to run point on this situation, because I knew what I was doing and what steps to take (or at least I felt like I knew what to do). Could you imagine if this was your first Vanilla Reload card experience and you had $1,000 in limbo? Or if you were buying these cards with cash and had an invalid PIN? At least I could initiate a chargeback on the account if my complaint with InComm didn’t go through (while a chargeback would hurt CVS instead of InComm, I would still do it — it’s the cost of doing business).

I really think Vanilla Reloads should have an extra layer of security than the thin tape layer than obscures the PIN, but I’m not going to ruffle any feathers. What I can do is make some suggestions:

  • Exercise caution purchasing Vanilla Reloads in the Metro Atlanta area.
  • Always keep your receipt!
  • Scratch PINs immediately after purchasing to validate that you have a valid card – I do not recommend scratching PINs before purchase because you should only do so once you’ve bought it. Also, try to have a system of what cards are used and unused if you do scratch PINs before actually loading a card. You don’t want to throw out a card that you hasn’t loaded yet!
  • Avoid holding Vanilla Reload cards for long periods of time. I rarely have a VR card on me for more than 24 hours, since I load them pretty much the same day. Unlike other reload products, where I have to type in the PIN, amount, and/or zip code purchased, Vanilla Reloads only require the PIN. It doesn’t seem too secure to me. And frankly, while I’m on my soap box, I don’t agree with those who hoard stacks of VRs to load in the following months, since it seems greedy to me. I don’t buy more than I can load within the next couple of days.

In the end, I don’t want to scare off people from this points-earning technique, though I do recommend exercising caution and knowing what potentially could happen. I do want to say that while I didn’t like the situation, I was generally satisfied with the interactions I had with InComm, though wish that I could have had it resolved more quickly.

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Amol (@PointsToPointB) joined HMT in 2012. An ardent manufactured spender, he's an American Executive Platinum, Delta Platinum, and United Platinum.
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  • caveman

    Good to know it ended well. I agree with all of your suggestions except for one where you recommend loading immediately. Sometimes blue bird does not let you load as they have limits and it is so hard for me to track those limits since I take care of 4 bluebirds for my family.

    • AKold

      With that in mind, I don’t buy more than I can load within a few hours.

      • BABA

        Amol Plz Tell Me where Can i find VR In Ny And NJ Apart From Cvs

  • Madhu

    I have been buying the VRs regularly but have never bothered to check on the sliver stip to see if it has been tampered. From now onwards I will be careful

  • Kelli

    Thank you for writing about this! I live just outside of Atlanta and the same thing happened to me. Getting InComm to respond has required 7 phone calls, and I’m still waiting on their latest response after a month since getting a card with an invalid pin. While the VR cards seemed like a great option for so many reasons, I won’t be doing this again. I’m glad to see this issue raised.

    • AKold

      Are you still waiting for them to honor a new PIN? I would tell them that you plan to open a police investigation, because this is a clear case of theft (you bought a card with $X amount of money on it and that money is inaccessible to you, and may have been taken by someone else). I feel like that was what got me to a supervisor that same day.

  • http://twitter.com/TravelSummary Travel Summary

    This actually scares me a bit since I buy large quantities and hold them for a while, without scratching the back. I’ll have to start doing that going forward. Glad everything worked out eventually.

  • traderprofit

    Just tried to use a reload bought 12/15. It was used last NIGHT 2/6 at 10:55 ET, loaded onto a Bluebird. It’s been in my safe deposit box since I bought it. I would not think a criminal would wait this long if he had the PIN, so it brings up the issue of someone running a script of all 10 digit pin against a Bluebird, Vanilla , or other card.

  • http://www.batteredluggage.com/ W Brian Duncan (aka IPBrian)

    This is great info…thanks guys!

  • disqust101

    This isn’t fraud. It’s a manufacturing defect. The last 4 numbers were “supposed” to have been printed, but were inadvertently omitted. That’s why they were able to give you 4 numbers to enable you to load your cards. If it were fraud, they would have had to send you cash.

    • AKold

      The new PINs had a completely different set of digits.

  • traderprofit

    In my continuing saga of my VR(s) I had been “hoarding” that someone used the other night I am going to add my 2 cents:
    DO NOT HOLD THESE AS THEY ARE NOT SECURE. LOAD THEM IMMEDIATELY.
    I made a really big issue of this with AMEX and Vanilla . I was told the product has only been out since October. I think it needs to be withdrawn (and I know there will be howls of disagreement) but it is not, as the issuer contends “to be treated like cash.” It’s worse. Nobody can steal your cash from a safe deposit box by having the serial number of the bills.
    I have many VR’s I saved after loading them and only discovered this issue by chance, when I asked the rep for the last 4 digits of the card to which 5 VR’s were loaded. Now I have to run another 20k in cards by Vanilla–and there is always the chance I threw away some reloads marked “Card is redeemed” where the card wasn’t applied to one of my accounts.
    When I get around to it I will see how many cards I bought across 6 or 7 credit cards, and try to tie that out to the amount loaded to Bluebird, Netspend, and Vanilla.
    Vanilla is so concerned about the issue they told me to open 2 more accounts and the supervisor then lifted the daily limit so I could put 20k on these other cards.
    Now , to who did this to me: Likely not a hacker as the card was loaded December 15 and redeemed to a BB Feb 6–that is, unless someone just started running a script (try testing the 10 to the 10th power # of pins on your bank account and see how long it takes the system to stop you, yet VR site appears to allow this) . If it’s not a script that’s better for me as it’s unlikely more of my pins that were redeemed were redeemed to someone else’s BB card.
    Now, if you want to start talking about who investigates this stuff, it may be the Secret Service as they deal with fraud on or involving an insured institution(Amex Centurion Bank).
    My bet is Vanilla is VERY concerned they have liability for gross negligence–just a guess. I know an email circulated about my case and the “large dollar amount” –hehehe as we know there are maybe 1000 people buying these things in quantity.
    I do have to say I am impressed by a couple of Vanilla supervisors, particularly the one who took it into his own hands and raised the daily limit so I could get almost all my cards loaded. The staff is hit and miss as far as capabilities.
    I’ll write off any loss I have that I am not aware of to hoarding and not considering the lack of security of the way the system is structured.
    I guess my final steps are seeing what I purchased and redeemed–a tough task .
    I will update this thread.

  • Mark

    I was lucky enough to find four VRs at CVS and bought them. I successfully loaded them into BB and paid my mortgage with them for the first time. I soon received a letter from my mortgage company that they received only ~$1300.00 of my $1800.00 payment! I freaked out thinking that BB had short changed my payment. It almost gave me a heart attack. It turns out that my mortgage company had applied somebody else’s $1300.00 payment to our account! Our payment from BB posted fine. I always worry that the VRs won’t load into BB but I never thought that BB could be a problem since it is backed by AMEX.

  • traderprofit

    The conclusion of the VR saga: It turns out I indeed loaded the card onto my AMEX debit card on January 6. What threw me is I called Vanilla and they twice said it was applied “last night” which was Februrary 6th. I haven’t used my AMEX debit card in awhile, so of course I didn’t even think about it because they said the date was February 6th, not January 6th.
    Although it sounds infantile, “My bad!” I feel stoopid.

  • Hi

    This is for real I know someone currently going thru this now. And it was brought in that’s same Atlanta area cvs. I say if you know your going to buy one scratch off first f that!

  • Nick

    I am just in the middle of an identical situation, after buying a $500 VR from CVS on Peachtree. I called InComm immediately and supposedly the agent was able to credit my Amex BB with the funds. Alas, the funds never showed up! So now I have to file a police report in order to dispute the credit. Wow. I think this may be time to give up on the VR game. Once you factor in the repeated calls to InComm, filing and then picking up a report from the police, and waiting up to 60 days (!), it’s just not worth the hassle!

  • jacisme

    Visited my local Atlanta CVS earlier this evening. The manager kindly asked that I scratch to reveal the pin before she rang them up. She said she had 14, yes FOURTEEN, in a row, that were all missing some of the digits earlier in the day. Luckily she caught them all before anyone bought them, but yes, 14 vanilla reload cards missing digits.

    I asked if she could tell that they had been tampered with, and she said they definitely had NOT been tampered with. No evidence of any tampering she told me, implying it had to be some sort of manufacturing error.

    • AKold

      The fact that this has been kept to the Metro Atlanta area likely points to a problem with a certain batch that went out to the same area, but the fact that InComm is in ATL raises some eyebrows.

  • SuperMatt

    I just purchased two $500 Vanilla Reloads from CVS on Holcomb Bridge Rd in Roswell, GA. (That’s outside the perimeter.) Both cards only had 6-digit pins, so I’m also now having to have InComm open an investigation.

  • indsouth

    I just bought it at CVS store on cobb pkwy . I just had 6 digit PIN. opened investigation with Incomm

    • AKold

      Good luck!

  • Charlie

    I just had this happen to me today. I bought two cards at a CVS in the Atlanta area. One card was missing all 10 digits and the other was missing the last 7. I called customer service and they sent me back to the store for a refund. I thought “yeah right, they are not going to refund me any money.” And I was right. The CVS did not refund me my money, but they called customer service and was able to get me the pins and then handed the phone to me so I could talk to the customer service agent who promptly loaded the cards onto my bluebird card.

  • thejibster

    This just happened to me today as well. The PIN was completely blank. This was in Newnan, so a bit outside the perimeter to the south. When talking with Incomm, they said that there were people who actually went around the Metro Atlanta area, scratched off the cards and/or removed the entire PIN sticker to obtain the PIN numbers, then resealed them or replaced them with blank and/or altered PIN stickers. Upon closer inspection, the one that I have that was affected appears to have been tampered with slightly (slight smudge to the left of the PIN sticker). Incomm basically said they did not know which cards were affected, so there are still some (err, a lot) in the wild. While the scammers have the PIN numbers, they cannot touch the funds until the cards are activated by someone who actually purchases one.

    I will ask them if I can scratch them before I purchase more tomorrow (and the next day) and then load the funds to my BB cards immediately after I purchase/activate the card.

  • Mike

    Hi Amol, had this happen to me a few days ago. PIN was missing and now I’m going back and forth with VR people trying to file a claim and a police report. Thinking of just going straight to Citi and filing a claim. Any suggestions on how to successfully file a claim with Citi? I only ask because if this was Amex all I have to do is tell them what happened and they will credit my credit card, no questions asked, but I’ve had situations in which I’ve filed a claim with Chase and they’ve told me, “well if it’s not an unauthorized transaction you have to take it up with the merchant”. Not sure how difficult Citi will get.
    Thanks in advance.

    • Amol

      I haven’t filed a claim with Citi in the past. I’d tried to work with Incomm as much as possible before going to the credit card company. I had an issue this past week with Vanilla Reloads and while it took 10 days to fix, Incomm finally came through.

  • balter1995

    Amol, at the risk of sounding stupid, can you suggest a way I can get a vanilla reload card replaced that has been lost? I tried calling them and didn’t get very far.

    • Amol

      I’m not sure — hopefully you still have the receipt. The only thing one there is the last 4 digits of the serial number (not PIN), so maybe they can track down which VR it is and deactivate? Again, not sure. Good luck.

  • rayjr13

    Just got a bum card on my first reload purchase at CVS on Johnson Ferry and Roswell in Marietta. Pretty crap way to start out. So surprised that this is STILL going on.. This actually was the first location where I went there were multiple on the rack.