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Express is fighting a U.S. Department of Justice antitrust lawsuit filed Monday
that claims the card company, along with rivals Visa and MasterCard, prohibits merchants
from offering incentives to use cheaper forms of payment.
Visa and MasterCard are named in the suit, the card networks agreed to a settlement
with DOJ that, if approved by the court, immediately would "require
the two companies to allow merchants to offer discounts, incentives and
information to consumers to encourage the use of payment methods that are less
costly," DOJ said.
Express, however, said it would fight DOJ in court, claiming its merchant
agreements "protect cardmembers against
discrimination and disruption at the point of sale."
American Express has long charged
higher fees to merchants in exchange for what it claims to be higher per-card
spending and superior cardholder service. However, according to DOJ, which is
joined by the states of Connecticut, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio
and Texas in the suit, the card provider's rules preclude merchants from
encouraging consumers to use cheaper forms of payment.
"The proposed settlement with
MasterCard and Visa is an important step in bringing more credit card competition
to the point of sale," said Christine Varney, assistant attorney general and
head of DOJ's antitrust division. "The department's lawsuit against American
Express will continue that effort and, if successful, allow merchants more freedom
to benefit their customers."
Amex chairman and CEO Kenneth Chenault
claimed DOJ would give unfair advantage to Visa and MasterCard, which have
lower merchant fees.
in a memo to employees explained the clause in American Express merchant
agreement that has come under fire. "These protections are designed to
ensure that our cardmembers are not discriminated against or inconvenienced by
being asked to use another card at the point of sale," Chenault claimed. "This
practice is known as steering, and the Justice Department is seeking to allow
American Express is by no means the
dominant card provider in the United States, and Chenault said merchants have
the freedom to accept their payment products or rely on competing forms of
payment. "Merchants are free to either accept or not accept American
Express cards," Chenault noted. "Likewise, consumers are free to use
any card they wish. But when a merchant has signed a contract to accept
American Express cards and a cardmember wants to use his or her card at that
establishment, the consumer should be able to exercise their right without