More British cashback: Airtime Rewards

You could say that one of this blog’s “side hustles” is talking about cashback offers. I think it all started with the idea of describing how privacy compromises work, but more recently focused on just one fintech’s free money distribution. This time I have something to talk about that again touches on both points.

Airtime Rewards is a cashback program that was advertised to me by my mobile phone provider, and it is indeed a bit different from other programs I’ve seen, because the cashback can only be redeemed as credit to your (or someone else’s) mobile phone bill — thus the Airtime part of the name I guess.

The way it works is pretty much reminiscent of the US-only “Rewards Club Dining”: you sign up for an account, and you give them your payment cards’ details — PAN (the 16-digit number), CVV and expiration date. They don’t charge you, instead they set up a “trap” on those cards, so that they are notified when you spend on them.

And this is honestly borderline even for me, as a privacy invasion. I haven’t worked deep enough in payment systems to actually know how those traps are implemented, but it sounds like the companies like Airtime Rewards are getting pretty much a huge feed of your spend, not just related to the vendors they offer cashback for. But don’t quote me on that because I don’t actually know how they implemented it, it might be totally benign.

Now let’s preface this with one important bit of information: only Visa and MasterCard cards are usable for either of these two options. American Express is, once again, a walled garden — they are effectively the iPhone of payment cards, for good and bad (including costs). Just like they don’t allow vendors to scam people via DCC, they don’t seem to allow traps of cards for payment.

So how does this program fare, and why do I even bother talking about it? Well first of all, if you’re the type of person who don’t like leaving money on the table at any chance, it’s actually pretty good, as long as you visit the stores involved. I signed up for this just before Christmas shopping, because I knew we were going to spend a bit of money at Debenhams, and they had a nice 5% cashback, but even just the couple of orders from Waitrose, and the usual stock-up at Boots were enough to get back ~£30 in a couple of months. It’s not going to pay for the phone bill constantly, but it does pay for a few vanity domain names, at the end of the year.

The cashback offers from various retailers are there to make customers chose them over alternatives. This has worked a tiny little bit with Airtime Rewards, in the sense that I factored in the cashback offer when choosing between ordering from Morrisons, Waitrose or Ocado — because sometimes the cheaper is actually winning due to cashback offers, either Airtime Rewards, or Santander. For the most part, a number of our usual destinations are part of the program, so Boots, Pizza Express, Ryman, or (more recently) Uniqlo are nice to see. For a while, Morrisons was also part of the program, but that has not been the case for very long — it appears there’s some variability on which retailers sign up, that suggests there may be a middleman company handling the retailers connections.

Speaking of Santander cashback, because Airtime Rewards attaches to the card number itself, it is possible to combine the two offers, making it closer to (sometimes) 10% cashback than 5%. The same is true with Curve, although note that you can’t stack Curve and banks’ offers, as the latter only see the charge coming directly from Curve.

One very annoying thing with the way Airtime Rewards work, compared to offers by banks, Curve, and American Express, is that they only hand you the cashback credit after a “confirmation period” by the retailer — namely it seems to be matching the various retailers’ return policies. Which means it’s taking 90 days to confirm a Morrisons transaction, despite Morrisons not being in the program anymore. It feels very strange for restaurants (like Pizza Express) needing 35 days to confirm a transaction though — I don’t think I would be able to return my lunch there.

One important thing to note is that the offers are also not quite uniform: while most of the offers are valid for both MasterCard and Visa, some are only available on one or the other circuit. It’s not a big deal for me, as I always preferred having one card on each, but it’s something to keep in mind. Not all the offers are available online, either – again the Morrisons offer I referred to above was only available in store, which excluded home delivery – and then there’s the catch with Google Pay and Apple Pay.

You see, when you pay with Google Pay or Apple Pay, you’re using a “virtual card” — the PAN of the card reported to the merchant does not match the one printed (or embedded) in the card that you connected. This has been described as a privacy-preserving feature by many, although I can’t find any obvious official documentation of this. The idea being, if you pay alternatively with your phone (or different phones) and your physical card, the merchants shouldn’t be able to tell you’re the same customer (but the bank, obviously, can). Turns out this is also not true, because indeed you can attach the PAN of a physical card to Airtime Rewards, and you get your cashback when you pay with Google Pay (connected to that particular card) at some of the retailers.

I say some, not just because Airtime Rewards explicitly only marks some offers as compatible with Google Pay, but also because experimentally I can tell you that even some of the offers that are marked as Google Pay compatible don’t actually work when paying with Google Pay. That was the case, for instance, of Carluccio’s: the only time the cashback got registered was the one time I paid explicitly with my physical card.

What this does mean, though, is that there’s a way for third parties (beside you, your bank, and Google/Apple) to connect payments by virtual cards with the corresponding physical card. And honestly, that’s the scariest part of this whole program.

So, at the end of the day, what if you’re interested in signing up for this? You can sign up here, and use code P7YR6TPE to get £1.5 bonus for you (and a matching one for me). Or maybe you can check with your mobile provider, that might have an even better sign-up offer, honestly.