Why I Canceled American Express Bluebird and Opened a Brokerage Account Instead

On October 9, 2012, I was high on the promise of American Express’ Bluebird prepaid card and “bank account.”  By November 2 of the same year, I had enough, as I mentioned in a comment on my original Bluebird review:

Bluebird is majorly sucking. On Oct. 31, during Halloween Sandy, we received an emergency email from Bluebird support that my wife’s account had been locked for “security reasons.” We decided to spend precious battery time in the middle of a power outage to call and find out what was happening. It turned out someone else was trying to login to her account and instead of locking THEM out, AMEX locked out my legitimate wife from her account! Madness! Terrible security. Why punish the innocent party by making them call in and go through a 15-minute security test when we aren’t the ones causing the login problems?

Just now, we received another freaking email from Bluebird about the same issue! My wife’s account is locked for security reasons! She hasn’t tried to login to her account for days! I’ve been trying to reach AMEX support for 30 minutes. Lines into the Philippines tech support center on this Sunday are clearly not working. What a hassle!

I’m thinking we will have to cancel our Bluebird account.

Today, I made good on my promise and canceled my Bluebird account over the phone — unlike AMEX Serve, Bluebird accounts cannot be canceled online — and the only reason I waited a few days to pancake Bluebird was because I first needed to zero out my balance with an Automated Clearing House (ACH) withdrawal to my bank account, and Bluebird, unfortunately, takes many days to process any ACH transaction.

I think Bluebird has limited promise for those who do not have a traditional checking account, but my advice is to create a really unique username during sign up that nobody can guess, or you will be forever hassled by Bluebird servicing as they repeatedly lock your account for security reasons that have nothing at all to do with your behavior.

There’s something really wrong with a security process that punishes the innocent user and not the confused/bad actor out there in the wilds trying to login/compromise an account.  Since Bluebird uses usernames — Serve uses your email address — to login to their system, if you were fortunate enough to be an early adopter and get the precious username you wanted before anybody else, you will be punished for that move as others dumber/meaner than you try to use your “guessable” username to login and you get locked out of your account.

When I first called AMEX to get my wife’s username changed, I was told I could do it myself online.  When I told them that was not true, Bluebird support hung up on me.  I called back four times for the same username issue, and was subsequently hung up on each time.  It seems the Philippines call center for Bluebird really have no idea how to solve anything substantive, and their training appears to dictate they just disconnect you instead of confessing they have no clue how to help you.  I am not alone in this “We Hang Up On You!” style of Bluebird customer service:

I read the Terms and Conditions and began to register only to be told the card is not available in Vermont. I know that 5 dollars is not a lot to many but when I called customer service the rep hung up after I waited 10 minutes. Next I called back and waited for another 10 minutes. She told me she was sorry that Bluebird card was not available in Vermont.

When I finally reached my fifth Bluebird support rep about the username problem, it seems they finally figured out what I already knew:  There’s no way to change a username once your account is established.  You have to cancel the account and then open a whole new account.  That meant I would have to cancel my wife’s sub-account and wait 7-10 days for her to get a new card.

I knew some sort of security problem would start happening with my username too, it was only a matter of time, and so I just decided to cancel everything with Bluebird and be done with the whole experience.  We never even had a chance to try to charge something with the Bluebird card.  Sending a check from Bluebird was also a slow experience:  12 days from check request to actual check delivery = Not Acceptable.

Each time I called Bluebird phone support, it stole 30 minutes from my life.  Canceling my account this morning cost me a bone-boring 45 minutes — 40 of which were spent on hold as the representative tried to figure out how to cancel an account with a sub-account.  Bluebird are not your regular excellent American Express customer service representatives.

What I found most fascinating about my cancel experience this morning with Bluebird was what they did not care to ask me:  “Why are you canceling?”  Instead, the representative only wanted to know, how I “planned to pay my bills without Bluebird?”

I told the rep I would use a different debit card and he didn’t care to know any more.

After living through Hurricane Sandy, I realized I needed a financial backup to my financial backups.  It isn’t enough today to just have one bank account and checking account.  You need to have at least two unique, non-credit card, pathways to your money in case one is unusable.  I thought Bluebird would be a good answer, but, in the end, I was disappointed in both service and expectation.  Bluebird really isn’t a bank — even though your direct deposits get sent to the “American Express Centurion Bank” — and you have no FDIC protection.

I decided to open a no minimum, no-fee, brokerage account that also happens to be bundled with no-fee checking.  I can have a debit card, and checks, all for free.  I can direct deposit.  A test ACH transaction into my 12-hour-old brokerage account from my regular bank had the funds in my account in under 12 hours!  That transaction speed beats Bluebird by a factor of eight!