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How Not to Ruin Manufactured Spending for Everyone

I’ve been participating in the manufactured spending game for about two years now and doing it in a fairly cautious, responsible way. Back when Vanilla Reloads were sold at Office Depot and people were getting their Ink accounts shut down for abusing the 5x point office supply category, I played it safe by staying at around $2,000 per month. Sure, I didn’t earn as much as others who really went for it, but I still have my Ink card and continue to earn 5x on some of my core expenses. Rick Ingersoll’s motto, “Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered” really rings true.

Last week I wrote about my trip to Walmart, where I unloaded $4,300 in gift cards and picked up money orders with my Alaska Airlines debit card. There was a long line at the Money Center and I spent a total of 45 minutes in the store. Some folks, especially on Twitter, took this to mean I spent 45 minutes hogging the kiosk and drawing attention to myself. One guy went as far as to Tweet out a link to my post and include @Walmart in a brilliant maneuver:

Twitter travel hacking

While the tweet was clearly an attack on me for a perceived wrongdoing, it’s important to avoid emotional outbursts  like this one. This type of tweet is far more damaging than any post a blogger could write on the topic. I realize most of my readers are much smarter than this, but still think it’s time to outline some good practices for those of us who care to keep this hobby going past our temper tantrums:

1. Don’t alert the media. You know the mantra, “Don’t call the airline” (in case of a mistake fare). The same applies to manufactured spending. If you think my post chronicling my manufactured spending strategy to a small audience on my blog is damaging, what do you think will happen when you alert the store where the manufactured spending activity is happening? Especially when this is a major source of manufactured spending for folks in the travel hacking community. Be discreet and don’t explain what you’re doing to store employees, banks, or anyone else involved in the process.

Back in the Vanilla Reload days, the cashier at my go-to CVS once asked me why I was buying them. Rather than explain the details of VR’s + Bluebird + Bill Pay, I simply stated that it was a tool I used to budget my household expenses.

Speaking of the media, at times I’ve been asked about travel hacking schemes by journalists. One guy even pointed to things being discussed in Flyertalk threads and asked me to elaborate, but I refused to talk about anything that may get shut down as a result of widespread media attention. Mattress running? Yes. After all, a loyalty program executive I spoke to expressed that he saw nothing wrong with the practice and considered various hacks as members being “engaged” with the program. Anything that can get shut down, I steer clear off promoting to a large (or the wrong) audience and I suggest you do the same. This includes shooting yourself in the foot (or more appropriately, committing a murder/suicide) by tweeting @Walmart about manufactured spending.

2. Avoid abuse. Take advantage of a good promotion, but don’t exploit it to the point where you draw attention to yourself. Sometimes when a great deal comes around, it’s easy to get carried away and abuse it. As I stated in one of my earliest posts, the relationship between travel hackers and businesses should be mutually beneficial.

3. Stay below the radar. When I’m buying gift cards or putting any kind of manufactured spend on my card, I make sure the amount doesn’t raise a red flag at the register, with the bank, or any parties involved in the transaction. This means I keep manufactured spending under $5,000 per credit card, I don’t buy $5,000 in gift cards in-store at a time, I don’t try to use four different gift cards to buy a money order, and I definitely don’t walk up to the register and try to unload more than one gift card onto Bluebird.

4. Don’t spend it all in one place. This ties in with staying below the radar: Don’t put all of your manufactured spending activity on one card, or buy all of your gift cards in one place. Unloading can be difficult, but as I’ve outlined in the Newbie Guide, there are a variety of options for doing so.

Ultimately it comes down to keeping your spending relatively low, not blabbing to the wrong crowd about your hobby, and staying low-key. As someone who’s been doing this for two years now, I can attest that this thing has longevity as long as you’re responsible and do your part to preserve it. At times I may write about a great offer but I don’t advocate anyone abuse it. If you read about me generating $40,000 in manufactured spending in a month, know that it’s not all done in one place. Similarly, when you read about me spending 45 minutes inside a Walmart buying money orders and loading Bluebird, I’m not hogging the Bluebird kiosk the entire time in clear view of the staff while 30 people stand behind me giving me death stares.

That being said, I hope everyone follows this advice as it benefits us all and ensures we’ll be earning (and hopefully traveling) for years to come.

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Ariana Arghandewal

37 Comments

  1. Great points in your article… be responsible! And don’t bring unwanted attention to yourself or the miles and points game. None of us are doing anything wrong. We pay the $3.95 – $5.95 for the gift cards, and Wal-Mart is probably earning some money for processing the debit card transaction (not as much as they were pre-Dodd/Frank & credit/debit card fee cap legislation). However, nobody is getting rich off of this, so they sure don’t want it to seem like this activity is monopolizing time in their stores and preventing potentially more profitable transactions from happening.

        • 45 minutes is not a long time to spend in a store. She spent most of it standing in line, which is not hard to believe if you’ve ever been to a Walmart.

  2. “Don’t alert the media”

    I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. If you think this massive corporations don’t know about your activity, you’re delusional. Walmart & CO are well aware of what’s currently being done and at what levels. They’ve either decided that they are OK with the risks involved, or are actively seeking solutions.

    I don’t think it’s a genius move to add in @walmart, but it’s certainly not going to suddenly make walmart aware of what you’re doing. All these big corporations have alerts set up for their brands (and various misspellings and code words), as well as internal staff notification systems.

    I agree with the rest of what you’re saying and the spirit of the post though. The above doesn’t apply for what are clearly mistakes (e.g evolve setting up CC payments and Staples paying rewards on portals) and smaller institutions.

    • I actually agree completely with Ariana and don’t agree with William C. Although the big corporate might already know like William mentioned, it does not help to shout around with that info..

      If you were in a room with 1 fly, u might not care to do anything about it, but if that fly constantly buzzes around your ears I’m sure you’ll be looking for the biggest electrical fly swat to beat the crap out of it !!!

      Peace!

          • Tweeting may get their attention, but so does WM CSRs who see people spending 45m unloading cards…

          • A lot of your assumptions are wrong and would be answered if you read the post. As Travis pointed out, no blogger has ever tweeted about manufactured spending to Walmart or the banks – it’s an unnecessary and reckless thing to do. It is more damaging than a blog post because blog posts are written for people in the community who want to learn how to ms. Companies wouldn’t find these posts unless they searched for them (or unless someone idiotically tweets it at them). A tweet written for the Walmart twitter team is very different. Any veteran hacker knows never to “call the airline.”

            Do bloggers hold some of the blame for spreading the word? Sure, but not more than people who spread the word on the FT forums, which get far more traffic than most blogs do. Everyone who participates and does so recklessly is responsible when a deal dies. In the end, it comes down to ms’ing responsibly and not mouthing off about it to wrong person. I’ve never pimped any cards and have included maybe two affiliate links in two years worth of blog posts, but again, you’d know that if you actually read this blog.

    • I actually agree with William C. Everyone knows what is going on. Including WalMart was not a good idea but I doubt the media team is going to shut down GC reloads because of that. They probably don’t even know it is possible but I’m sure IT and management is. I believe blogs are actually more damaging (specially when they post step by step instructions with pictures and drawings) to the MS as a whole but I understand bloggers make money with ads and CC referrals. In any case, use not abuse. Take advantage while MS opportunities last and if one gets shut down, move to the next one. Just my $0.02.

      • I don’t think it’s the bloggers so much as readers who abuse these hacks and draw attention to the hobby. Also, blogs with affiliate relationships are restricted in talking about ms, so they really aren’t profiting from spreading the word about it anymore. It’s just good practice (for your sake and everyone else’s) not to abuse a deal so that you don’t get your account shut down and the deal continues on for longer.

        • Right. Bloggers aren’t the problem. Keep telling yourself that. How many cards have you pimped where the solution to making minimum spend was “buy VRs” or “go to WM”???

          • Don’t be an ass, guy who won’t even use his real name in comments. Ariana never puts affiliate links in her posts and if she did, so what? There’s nothing wrong with bloggers earning money for maintaining a resource like this. If that’s a problem, go be a troll somewhere else.

    • I’m sure some of the parties involved in ms are aware of it, but you’d be surprised at how many have no clue. The Bluebird folks are seemingly unaware who their core audience is and what they are doing with the card. For a long time Chase had no idea people without legitimate businesses were applying for and getting approved for Ink cards. They also didn’t know about people using their Ink cards to buy VR’s at office supply stores until they decided to start monitoring the blogs (late in the game) they had affiliate relationships with. We don’t know for sure what Walmart or other corporations know, so tweeting at them and rubbing it in their faces is an idiotic thing to do – that’s how the mint deal got shut down.

    • Do you do anything other than leave comments everywhere so people will notice your blog?

      Bottom line: Tweeting at Walmart was a dick move.

  3. I too think that restraint is more beneficial than blatant overuse. Yesterday I went to load a couple of GC’s at WM and was told that WM has been notified to no longer load GC’s. I’ve been doing this for a couple of years and this is a first. I can only assume that I should begin looking to other means of MS. I limit myself to a couple of K’s per month. Anyone else run in to this problem?

    • I had the same thing happen to me once. Just make sure you’re using the Bluebird kiosk to unload gc’s rather than the register. They haven’t been programmed to reject gc’s and I doubt that’s coming with the technological mess that thing has become.

      • My local Walmarts have trained their Money Center cashiers to check for gift cards and they have been aggressive about asking me to hand them the cards the last couple weeks. Really slowed down my ability to unload gift cards. Now my Krogers have begun doing the same thing. I’m don’t know what caused this in my area but it is happening here and in some other areas if you read the treads on Flyertalk. It seems to be a regional thing at this point and like CVS can be a clerk to clerk thing.

        • I’d stick to unloading via the Bluebird kiosk. Far less of a hassle (when it’s working).

  4. One other thought. As all of you small business/entrepreneurial types know, one of the central purposes of the tax code was to encourage the creation of small businesses etc. The various deductions and expensing tools were specifically instituted to encourage people with ideas to take a chance on their ideas – ultimately creating more wealth within the economy.
    Of course, those who abused the spirit of tax break entrepreneurialism ended up paying a penalty for their abuse of the system.

    In many ways, the points and miles hobby works in a very similar manner. Those who utilize the system of point gathering, ultimately create more business revenue for the providers of the system. However, those who abuse the system, inevitably bring themselves down. Unfortunately, they sometimes bring the system down for those who utilize the system in a prudent manner. Just saying!

  5. Wow. Totally shocked that someone would include WM on that tweet. If people keep that up, it won’t be long before they shut this down too.

    • Same here. I understand wanting to spite a blogger for writing about ms, but this hurts everyone (him included). Not smart at all.

      • Bad move. But one tweet. You think that offsets the thousands of posts from pimps who push cards all day, every day? Not even in the same zip code of irresponsibility. Methinks a mirror might be useful for some people…

        • One tweet at the one account you SHOULD NOT be tweeting at. Face it, you’d be pissed if a blogger tweeted the same link at Walmart. You’re either mindlessly biased against blogs or “P” is just an alias for “Joe.”

  6. Great post and reminders for all. And whether or Walmart knows about MS techniques, it’s never a good idea to flag them intentionally by using their handle in a tweet. They may know very well what’s going and intentionally choose to ignore it. But when you tweet them about it, you may force their hand. I agree Joe is not the brightest bulb on the tree. He first misread the post and then tweeted Walmart about it. He has become a lesson in what NOT to do.
    Keep up the good work, Ariana.

      • I agree with moderation, I just used the Simon Mall Visa debit to load my BB at WalMart, no kiosks here, so used customer service desk, no problem, I think the clerks get so buried with returns,complaints,etc, that they actually don’t mind BB loading..at least here in my area.

        • At most stores they let you swipe it yourself, so they don’t even look at your card. Some stores are being told to look out for the card type being used, but it’s a good thing that hasn’t happened to you yet.

  7. I agree with many of the sentiments expressed here. However…just wanted to suggest for those who are doing amounts that could not be reasonably explained…

    Saying you are using the purchases as budget tools is great and all…but if you are doing real volume, continually having CTRs, SARs, etc filed, then you know the best option is to just say you get airline miles.

    There’s no logical alternative besides you being a criminal or the truth that you are making a profit off of the transactions…if you are spending at such a high level just say you are getting miles and leave it at that.

    • I agree, that’s good advice. In my case, I jump around to different stores, but if you’re ms’ing at a single Walmart/CVS/Target in large quantities, you should just be upfront about what you’re doing. It’s better than them thinking you’re a criminal.

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