The marvelous world of online mileage brokers

The marvelous world of online mileage brokers

The first rule about miles is that everyone always wants more. More miles means more great trips with friends and family, more champagne to sip while watching the unwashed masses shuffle by, more travel like this

suites1

And less like this

Although careful planning can really help you maximize the number of miles you earn, at the end of the day if you’re not travelling much or spending big on credit cards, your miles balance is just going to sit there collecting dust. And remember, miles are the worst investment you can hold, because they don’t earn interest, aren’t covered by deposit insurance and can only be devalued.

The lust for continually acquiring miles has created a cottage industry in the grey market known as “mileage brokers”. These brokers have a simple proposition- buy miles from us at a low price, and save big by redeeming said miles for first and business class tickets. Arbitrage in its simplest form.

But who are these guys? How do they work? Is it legal? What happens if you use them? In late July, with a bit too much time on his hands, The Milelion decided to find out.

How do mileage brokers work?

The modus operandi of mileage brokers is simple.

  1. You indicate what airline currency you want to buy, and how much.
  2. They come back with a quote.
  3. You pay, and the miles are transferred to your frequent flyer account, usually within 1-2 business days.

(1) Maybe you’ve already exhausted that avenue by buying all the miles you can in a year through annual fees and it’s still not enough.

(2) Maybe your income isn’t high enough to qualify for some of the credit cards with better annual fee offers (e.g the Standard Chartered Visa Infinite lets you buy 35,000 miles at 1.7 Singapore cents each, but requires an minimum annual income of $120,000).

(3) Maybe you just need a small top up to get you over the hill for a redemption. Singapore Airlines allows you to buy miles at US$40 per 1,000 miles, so long as you have 50% of the miles needed for an award ticket, but this represents a horrible value at 4 US cents per mile.

Where do the miles  from mileage brokers come from? In almost all cases, miles will be transferred to your account from someone else’s credit card rewards points. It’s no secret that credit card churning and manufactured spending opportunities are much more easy to come by in the USA, and now that Krisflyer is transfer partners with AMEX Rewards, Citi Thank You and Chase Ultimate Rewards, it’s all the more easy for these brokers to earn cheap credit card points and sell the associated miles online.

Is it legal?

The classic line mileage brokers will tell you is that the practice is “not illegal.”

themilesbroker.com
buyairlinemiles.com
sellmyrewards.com

And they’re absolutely right. Illegal means breaking the law, and there is no statute or legislation on Singapore’s books that says “thou shall not buy airline miles from 3rd party vendors”. Meaning that buying airline miles will not land you in jail or facing any sort of civil action.

But just because something isn’t illegal doesn’t mean it’s advisable. Buying miles is against the T&C of Krisflyer, or any other frequent flyer program for that matter. If the airline finds out you are engaging in such a practice, your account can be shut down and all your miles confiscated, with no recourse for you.

From the Krisflyer T&C-

7. The sale or barter of KrisFlyer miles, PPS Value, award tickets or other benefits is prohibited and will result in cancellation of these miles, PPS Value, award tickets and/or other benefits. Members who breach this rule may also be liable for damages, litigation and transaction costs.

Yes, a true pharisee might point out that the T&C prohibit you from sellingbut not necessarily from buying,  but I genuinely wonder whether that defense would hold up in the event of them doing an account audit.

Frankly, I’d rather not risk finding out. If airlines find out that you’re buying miles from mileage brokers, those miles can be revoked and in a worst case scenario, your entire account (including legitimately earned miles) can be forfeited, and you can be banned from opening an account with that airline again.

Can I trust these guys?

I know what you’re thinking. Wow, so I send money to some online entity and a few days later they send the miles to my account? That sounds above board, and totally safe! I mean, who would ever misrepresent themselves on the interweb!

There’s a great little story over on Slate about how the writer, looking to buy frequent flyer miles, got scammed twice in the same week. Or you could read this long thread on Tripadvisor of people discussing their experiences with such providers. Or you could read this response by The Points Guy, considered to be one of the grand laojiaos of travel hacking.

Let’s be honest, mileage brokers don’t exactly exude trust and good faith.

Some of their tactics are probably pretty harmless, like this little screengrab from The Mileage Club with a countdown timer. Oh no! Only 18 hours left, I’d better move quickly to secure this amazing deal!

Well yeah, until you examine the Javascript code on the page and see their counter just automatically resets itself every time it expires.

Or how about this name dropping at the bottom of The Mileage Club’s site which seems to suggest that this operation must be legit- after all it’s been mentioned on CNN, Fox and NBC.

Until you read what the quotes are actually saying, and realise it’s talking about frequent flyer programs in general, not The Mileage Club per se.

Or how about testimonials! Those always put everyone’s mind at ease because they’re like from real people and why would anyone make them up?

Buy Miles Now would have you believe that this Chinese looking gentleman is “Raj Nanjiani”. I’m all for multiculturalism but color me slightly skeptical that’s a real name, photo or testimonial.

First of all, Raj must be a very elusive person because a Google search for his name reveals only one hit. Yup, you guessed it. Come on guys, how hard is it to use “John Smith”?

Second, running a reverse image search on Google turns up some interesting results. Is Raj Nanjiani living a second life as Leo Black, manager at Vende Zone?

And promoting dodgy herbal supplements as Hao N. at Tolip Nutrition (at least he wore a green shirt for this photo)?

And as an adjunct faculty member at Yavapai College in Arizona?

And as Larry, a member of a golfing social group called Parredup?

By the way, I uploaded all the other seven images under the testimonials section and found that these were all generic stock photos being used by many other websites.

So maybe the testimonials are true, but the photos aren’t? Yeah, sure. If you believe that I’ve got this awesome swampland in Florida that’s going to shoot through the roof any minute now…

Long story short, these guys have really questionable sales tactics. But that in and of itself is not a smoking gun. Maybe they offer a legitimate product, just sold in a really shoddy manner. Ready to find out?

Meet Niole Lim

At The Milelion, my job is to help everyone earn as many miles as you can, within the rules. I never have (and never will) endorse anything that goes against the rules of a program.

That said, Niole Lim has no such reservations.

Meet Niole Lim. Niole is bright, perky, uses an annoying number of :)’s in her emails, and wants to travel better for less. Niole Lim is also an anagram for “Milelion”. Yes, I wanted to do Milelion spelt backwards but decided that “Niole” was somewhat more believable than “Noile”. Besides, spell Niole Lim backwards and you get Mileloin, and loins are always funny.

Niole is my cypher, my entry point into the world of online mileage brokers.

A simple Google search for “buy airline miles” or “sell airline miles” brings up more than 50 or 60 websites that claim to sell you miles. I picked 5 at random to investigate.

dramatis personae

All of them offer Krisflyer miles for sale, at varying prices. This might just possibly be the best example of a perfect market, actually, given the homogeneity of the product, the lack of transport or transaction costs, the perfect knowledge that exists (you can Google around to  check prices).

Airmiles.com.sg CXSQMiles BuyMilesNow TheMilesBroker BuyAirlineMiles
Minimum Order 100,000 1,000 10,000 1,000 1,000
Cost per mile (all USD) 1.9 cents 1.6 cents 1.75-1.9 cents Not specified 1.8-2.3 cents
Promised delivery time Not stated 2-3 business days 24 hours 72 hours 48 hours

Of course, a perfect market also assumes that these guys don’t just take your money and run.

Using Niole’s Gmail account, I sent out inquiries. Three of them outright refused to deal with me unless I was willing to buy 10,000 miles or more. But two of them were willing to do 1,000 mile transactions…

CX SQ Miles

CXSQ miles is easily the most amateur of all the sites I found, not even having a proper hosted domain. Gotta dig that minimalism.

And yet they were also the most on the ball. Barely 15 minutes after I sent my first email, I got a reply from Daniel

Interesting- at US$16 per 1,000 miles, CXSQ miles were certainly the cheapest of all the operations. It was also nice of Daniel to propose a smaller transaction first to make sure everything was going smoothly.

My interest piqued, I asked the “how do you do it” question

And amazingly, Daniel tells me. I googled around to learn more about the Samsung Card and apparently this is a Korean dealie where you can convert Samsung points to Singapore Airlines (and a lot of other airlines too) at a 15:1 ratio. There is apparently no need for name matching between the recipient’s FFP and the person who transfers the points. I assume Daniel generates the Samsung points on the cheap through some other method. 

Daniel claims to sell 4-5 million miles per month. If he’s charging US$16 per 1,000 miles, this dude is generating US$64,000 in revenue. Obviously the margins are thin and I have no idea how much it costs him to generate the Samsung points, but still, that’s a heck of a volume.

Niole asks for and gets the option to pay with Paypal instead of a bank transfer. If I’m going to spend some money on this investigation, I might as well earn points right?

Daniel proposes a fee of US$17 for 1,000 miles to cover the Paypal fees, which is still much cheaper than what other brokers want. The problem I now have is that Niole can’t open her own Paypal account. Believe me, I tried. Paypal locked Niole’s account the moment I added a credit card that didn’t have her name on it, and demanded I send proof of residence and verify a sample transaction. And I just wasn’t going to go through all that.

So I use the boyfriend solution to avoid suspicion. Niole’s loving boyfriend, so eager for her to travel the world, will foot the bill for the miles. As soon as I send this, I wonder whether I should have mentioned I have a boyfriend. Maybe he’d tell me more about his operation if he thought he had a chance to impress me.

But it doesn’t matter, Daniel goes ahead and does the transfer without even waiting for me to make payment! And he’s so sweet, he’s even gone and translated the screenshot so I know what’s going on. I think I might be in love.

The miles posted to Niole’s Krisflyer account on the Monday after with no drama.

Keep in mind this doesn’t say anything about whether CXSQ miles as a whole is legit. For all I know, he’s playing the long game. Maybe this 1,000 mile initial transaction is to build trust, and once I pay a substantial amount for 100,000 miles he’ll up and vanish. There’s no way of knowing, really, until its too late.

Anyway, Daniel, if you’re reading this, nothing personal bro. You were easily the nicest of all the miles brokers I came across.

Buy Airline Miles

Buy Airline Miles probably seems like the most legit of this entire operation. Just check out their snazzy Facebook page!

Heck, they’ve even got a half-decent how to video on their website explaining how the process works

Buy Airline Miles responds within two hours of my enquiry and I am introduced to Victor, a sales professional with a pretty impressive looking signature.

The charge is 60,000 miles for US$1,140, or US$19 per 1,000 miles. Victor’s trying to pull a fast one on me here, because the website clearly says that the price is US$18 per 1,000 miles until 31 October.

Niole is determined to get her deal. She also states the usual concerns about legitimacy, being the good, upstanding citizen that she is.

Victor realises that Niole is a smart, feisty and totally legitimate shopper.  He comes back with a counter offer

Victor, sweetheart that he is, created a coupon code just for me! That’s keeper material there that is. Niole blushes and wonders if years from now she and Victor will be relating their story of love to friends and family- “I knew he loved me when he generated a personalized discount code to facilitate my grey market miles transaction”. Also interesting- it seems that one of the ways of circumventing the FFP/rewards name mismatch issue is to add an additional authorized user on the credit card account. I understand this is possible with American Express cards in the US.

He also assuages Niole’s fears of inadvertently doing something illegal by pointing out that “there isn’t any law prohibiting buying miles.” Phew! For a moment I thought I’d end up in Guantanamo Bay.  To his credit, he does say “it is against the terms and conditions from the airline” but then hurriedly reiterates that “but that does not make it to be illegal.”

Ok Victor let’s do this

Inline image 1

Since I’m only buying 1,000 miles, Victor wants US$23 instead of the US$18 rate I’d get for buying 60,000.

Hold up, I’m not comfortable entering my personal credit card details on this site. And Victor tells me they don’t take Paypal. There could well be a legitimate reason for that (eg high transaction fees), but I’m not about to give my unmasked credit card details nonetheless.

Then I remembered- I have that prepaid US$25 gift card from my Silvercar rental. Seems as noble a purpose as any to use it here.

redacted card

And done!

Victor is pleased

I even get an official looking confirmation receipt for payment.

The miles posted 2 working days later.

Again, no knowing if they’re legitimate for the long haul or not, but it’s off to a good start. 2/2 so far. Unfortunately this is as far as it can go because no one else wants to sell anything less than 10,000 miles at one time.

But here’s my general sense on the 5 sites I looked at: I don’t think any of them are outright scams. I’m not willing to send them a few thousand to test it, but the economics of their business model is sound enough (they buy the miles cheap and sell them at a small profit, see the next section) that it doesn’t need to be a take your money and run thing.

The Buy Side

One more piece to this puzzle-to round things out I also approached some of the online mile buyers to get a quote for how much they’d offer me for the 280,000 Krisflyer miles I had lying around in my account.

I got a range of offers

  • Flipmymiles offered me US$2,800, or 1 cent per mile
  • Cash4miles offered me US$3,500 or 1.25 cents per mile
  • YYZmiles offered me US$2,520 or 0.9 cents per mile

Needless to say this is poor value, but also helps me understand how they can flip the miles and sell them at rates that are relatively cheap. The average buying rate of 1 cent per mile leaves more than a healthy profit margin for the brokers.

My favourite miles buying site? That’s got to be the very observant Miles Rabbi, who does not respond to email inquiries on the Sabbath.

I am contacted by a Bruce Goldberg who asks me (I used my regular email for this since I’m not going to transact with them anyway) these questions three

To which I say

To which he says

Interesting. He runs >500 SQ accounts?  Also, I suppose that if you want to sell your miles you’d be better off creating a separate account just for that purpose, because you don’t want a stranger having regular access to your real account. But I can also see how that will be a big red flag for SQ Audit- imagine seeing some accounts opened, get large mileage amounts dumped into them, then redeemed equally quickly.

I ask Bruce to clarify what happens now

And he says the miles can be used in 2-3 days.

He proposes US$3,000 for 280,000 miles with US$1,000 upfront or 1.07 cents per mile. Not the best offer, but hey, cash upfront!

If I was uncomfortable buying miles, I am even more uncomfortable selling them. Assuming the standard business model is to work on a 1/3 upfront 2/3 upon full sale basis, you’re still on the hook for 2/3 of the promised amount. And good luck to you calling the airline and saying “Hi, someone emptied out my miles account and didn’t pay me the money he promised, can you help me out?”

I have no idea whether Bruce Goldberg really owns 500 SQ accounts. But if he really does, does SQ have a bigger mileage fraud problem than they’d care to admit?  How many Bruce Goldbergs are out there? What does this mean for people who are legitimately trying to book award tickets?

What now?

Surprisingly, the practice of buying and selling miles was already reported six years ago in the Straits Times.

Frequent fliers sell their miles for a quick buck
Practice is against airlines’ rules; SIA says such cases ‘quite rare’

By Ng Kai Ling

FREQUENT fliers who have air miles to spare are selling them in cyberspace, even though the practice flies against the terms and conditions of such mileage programmes.

Singapore Airlines’ (SIA) KrisFlyer, Emirates’ Skywards and Qantas’ miles are among those being touted online.

And sellers – mostly executives who travel frequently on business – are doing a roaring trade, pocketing, on average, $4,000 a year.

Customers too are happy, as they save about 20 per cent when they purchase miles online instead of buying a ticket directly on the airlines’ websites.

For example, on auction sites such as eBay and online forum Hardware Zone, KrisFlyer miles are going for $20 to $30 per 1,000 miles.

To redeem a return ticket to Paris, for example, a person needs at least 70,000 miles for an economy class seat.

At an average of $25 per 1,000 miles, a trip to Paris would set one back $2,100, including taxes and surcharges.

A check on the SIA website yesterday showed that a return ticket to Paris departing next month costs $2,340.80, including taxes and surcharges, if bought through its website.

One buyer, who wants to be known only as Shawn, saved $300 when he bought a $1,800 return ticket to Paris from a friend in 2008.

He said: ‘My first thought was, ‘Can you do that?’

‘But I figured that I’m still paying for a ticket, so I should be entitled to use it,’ said the 31-year-old technical officer.

Well, apparently not.

Under the terms and conditions stated in the KrisFlyer programme, ‘the sale or barter of KrisFlyer miles, PPS Value, award tickets or other benefits is prohibited and will result in cancellation of these miles, PPS Value, award tickets and/or other benefits’.

The rules also state that members can use the miles only for themselves and five family members or friends who are nominated on their accounts.

When asked what the penalty is for members who breach the rules, SIA said they ‘may be liable for damages, litigation and transaction costs’.

Other programmes have similar terms and conditions that prohibit members from selling their miles.

But sellers told The Straits Times that the rules are flexible enough to allow them to operate with relative ease.

Once they have agreed on the price with a buyer, all they have to do is nominate the buyer and redeem the tickets in the buyer’s name.

A seller, who declined to be named, said selling miles is a win-win situation for both him and his buyers.

‘I don’t want to waste the miles because they expire, and buyers can get cheaper tickets from me,’ said the marketing executive who travels monthly for work.

He added that KrisFlyer miles are popular because buyers can get cheaper tickets and still fly on SIA.

For many sellers, selling their miles online is good business as most of them accrue their miles from business travel paid for by their companies.

They say they can earn about $4,000 a year from selling miles.

SIA said it had dealt with cases where KrisFlyer miles were being sold or bartered, but did not say what the outcomes were or reveal the numbers of cases encountered. It only said that such cases were ‘quite rare’.

In the United States, individuals and companies have been sued for trading in frequent flier miles, with the courts ruling in favour of the airlines.

In 1998, a US court awarded more than $9 million in damages to Delta Airlines, which sued miles brokerages for buying frequent flier tickets from members and re-selling them as ‘discount’ tickets.

But even though it may be small business here for now, the deals are too good to pass up. Shawn said: ‘If I plan another holiday and it is long haul, I would prefer to fly SQ (SIA) and would definitely try to buy miles.

– The Straits Times, 4 June 2010

Now, this was six years ago but I do not buy at all SQ’s position that this is rare. If it’s rare, it’s because people don’t know about it, not because it’s hard to do or SQ is particularly vigilant. If The Miles Rabbi can operate 500+ SQ accounts, as he claims, I have serious concerns about SQ’s internal audit processes.

Conclusion

How do I personally feel about mileage brokers? I think that in Singapore we are at a tremendous disadvantage to Krisflyer members in the USA. That is a sad but true fact. Five years ago, Krisflyer did not partner with many of the major transfer currencies in the States, meaning that US-based flyers who wanted to earn SQ miles had to fly with SQ (they partnered with AMEX Rewards in the US, granted)

Then in 2014 Krisflyer became available as a transfer partner with two of the largest currencies- Citi ThankYou points and Chase Ultimate Rewards. Suddenly, US-based Krisflyer members could flood their accounts with churned and manufactured spending miles, massively diluting the award pool for Singapore-based flyers (yes, not everyone churns and MS-es. But those who do do it in such high volume that I’d be fascinated to see how SQ’s miles outstanding figure changed in 2014)

I  (and many other SG-based frequent flyers) felt angry, betrayed even, that SQ did this because it diluted our hard earned miles, but at the end of the day, it it made financial sense for SQ to partner up with AMEX Rewards, Citi Thank You and Chase Ultimate Rewards in order to earn the incremental revenue that is accrued when American cardholders transfer points into the Krisflyer FFP. I don’t like that, but remember, SQ’s loyalty is not to you. It is to their shareholders.

Therefore I can completely understand the point of view of those who say that mileage brokers are an equalizing force, providing access to (relatively) cheap miles so that we can fight off the yanks who are competing with us for award space. I really do. It feels like righting a wrong, and at the end of the day Krisflyer still earns revenue when those mile brokers transfer their credit card points into Krisflyer, so why does SQ care?

My point of view is that it’s unfair to those people who do play by the rules and end up having to compete with bought miles when vying for award space. Yes the rules may be arbitrary. They may not make sense (considering SQ still gets its pound of flesh when they sell the miles to the banks). But they’re the rules. And those of us who abide by them, earning our miles through flying with SQ and using its awful cobranded cards, are the ones who lose out. That to me is why this practice isn’t fair.

I wrote to Singapore Airlines to self-report Niole’s indiscretions.

Dear Krisflyer

Over the past month I’ve been researching online mileage brokerage sites for an article I’m writing. These websites allow Krisflyer members to purchase miles, transferred in from 3rd party credit cards rewards accounts. As you may already be aware, this is against the T&C of the Krisflyer membership program.

I was able to buy 1,000 miles each from 2 different brokers at a price ranging between US$17-23 per 1,000 miles. Both these transactions went through successfully into the dummy Krisflyer account I set up.

I wanted to find out from you what sort of procedures SQ has in place to protect their members who do play by the rules. How does SQ protect these members against dilution of their miles and from having to compete for award space with those who have bought miles illicitly? What are the checks and safeguards in place to protect the integrity of the system?

Krisflyer replied a day later

Dear Ms Lim

Thank you for your email dated 11 August 2016 to Singapore Airlines regarding KrisFlyer miles.

Singapore Airlines will perform random audit checks on our KrisFlyer members account to check the transactions. In the event that there is a suspicious transaction in members’ account, we would require members to send in supporting documents to proof that the credited miles belongs to them.

We note that your KrisFlyer miles in your account were purchased from third party sources. In this instance, the ineligible miles may need to reverse from your KrisFlyer account.

We are most appreciative of the time you have taken to highlight this matter. We are currently look into this matter and will update you on the status in due course.

Ms Lim, thank you for writing to us and we look forward to being of service to you again.

Even after I told them point blank I broke their T&C by buying miles I’m still able to log into my account and use my miles as per normal. I assume they will follow up again in the week to come with a more substantive answer, and I’ll keep you posted as that happens.

TL:DR, I really hope that SQ takes a serious view of this practice, given the potential it has to harm legitimate mileage collectors. I do not know the true scale of this problem. I do not know to what extent it is causing the backlog of waitlists, the lack of saver flights on certain routes and other Krisflyer woes.  That is something that SQ owes its members to find out.

I also hope that one day Daniel works up the courage to leave his life of vice, find a nice Korean girl and settle down in the suburbs.

Because he’s really the best.

cover photo by jackyczj

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13 thoughts on “The marvelous world of online mileage brokers”

  1. Honestly not sure how this is possible because you can’t even enter another person’s name when linking a frequent flier account with a credit card. The name of the credit card holder gets auto-populated and you can only enter the frequent flier account number.

    See:
    http://onemileatatime.boardingarea.com/2015/04/28/can-you-combine-citi-thankyou-rewards-accounts/

    http://iflywithmiles.com/blog/how-to-transfer-american-express-membership-rewards-points-to-airlines/

    1. i understand you can add additional authorized users to your AMEX card. most of the points transfers seem to be coming from amex. i’m not familiar with the US card system though…

  2. You are a shit disturber… and your logic is flawed how is anyone competing with you by buying miles more so than the people who have these miles would? Do you think someone is going to let these miles go to waste if they are not able to sell them? No, they would be using them anyways….

    1. that is true, provided the miles were already in krisflyer. but in the majority of these cases the miles are transferred in from credit card programs. which means that these miles didn’t exist at first, but for them being created by the “pull” factor of demand.

  3. i feel the same way you do. living in singapore, earning KF miles the hard (butt in seat) way, i can’t help feeling envious of US folks who rack up KF miles through their credit cards. i wish KF hadn’t become a transfer partner of all those US credit cards.

    1. yeah…but i understand from a business POV why they did it. at the end of the day SQ’s loyalty is to its shareholders, not its customers.

  4. Your article is too long. (Dont get mad yet. Promise, this is a positive feed!) I managed to finish reading it till the last comment section. very informative. I hope you will still have more free time to do another investigative work like this.

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