Even a prominent Pennsylvania philanthropist who possessed all the business acumen of a successful corporate leader fell prey.
Michael Pouls checked the business model. He contacted retailers, reviewed a lawyer's description of the program that was made popular by a Largo-Clearwater based company, and considered the involvement of such corporate giants as Ashley Furniture.
In a 32-page lawsuit filed Thursday and in an interview, Pouls says the free gas voucher program he helped finance with some $900,000 had a plausible business model.
"I don't think I'm a sucker," said Pouls, 47, owner of the national Kidz Idz child identification company.
But ultimately, he says, he was lured into a Ponzi scheme by BBZ Resource Management, one of the gas voucher manufacturers.
Now Pouls joins a growing list of civil cases and investigations into the operations of two companies that distributed free gas vouchers to consumers through companies in the United States and Canada.
The unraveling of the programs run by Largo-Clearwater based Tidewater Marketing Global Consultants and Arizona counterpart BBZ Resource Management has cost consumers, retailers and sales brokers tens of millions of dollars.
Tidewater is under criminal investigation by the Pinellas State's Attorney's Office, and attorney's general nationwide are looking at both companies' business practices.
Fay Waldo, an attorney for BBZ, said the company did not immediately have a comment about Pouls' allegations. She said Troy Warren, who runs the gas voucher program, was meeting with Pouls' representative regarding the dispute.
Countless retailers large and small — including Tire Kingdom, Ashley Furniture, defunct Tweeter and Sound Advice, as well as untold car dealerships — distributed the gas vouchers and later a similar grocery voucher as incentives to draw customers to their businesses as the struggling economy hurt sales and gas prices.
Now retailers are paying the price, too.
On June 11, an Illinois woman filed a class-action lawsuit against Ashley Furniture, which distributed Tidewater's gas vouchers and then BBZ's gas cards, for failing to deliver the promised $500 cards used as an incentive to buy furniture.
That suit followed a separate class action against Big O Tires in February because of Tidewater's vouchers.
Colleen Hegge, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs in both class-action lawsuits, said she blames the retailers for distributing bogus gas vouchers to consumers.
"These manufacturers need to take responsibility," Hegge said. "They're legitimate major businesses, and they chose not to do their homework on these fly-by-night companies.
"The consumer doesn't know Tidewater; they don't know BBZ. But they know Ashley. That's who they did business with."
Ashley Furniture did not respond to questions about the lawsuit.
The state of Florida shuttered Tidewater's operations in February after suing the company for deceptive practices and failing to issue the promised gas cards.
Then BBZ Resource Management stepped up, and assured it was different.
But complaints have begun piling up on Internet complaint boards and with the Better Business Bureau.
The Better Business Bureau downgraded BBZ's rating from a C- to an F during the past couple of weeks as complaints continue to stream in about the company.
"We've been monitoring the file very closely," said Felicia Thompson, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Better Business Bureau. "Obviously we're getting complaints in on a daily basis at this point."
Pouls calls the program run by BBZ Resource Management a fraudulent Ponzi scheme in which the company was using "new income to pay off old debts based on false pretenses."
Pouls, a developer who also ran a credit card business and other ventures, says that he separated himself from BBZ after it became clear to him that the company was defrauding the public.
"The biggest thing going on was nobody was getting their cards," he said. "I was appalled."
Pouls said he became involved with BBZ after he was introduced to the gas voucher program by a friend in January. He said he met with Troy Warren, who was running BBZ's program.
During that meeting, Warren's then-lawyer Peter M. Gorski backed what was said of the program. Gorski had put in writing that the business model was not based on such things as consumers not participating despite receiving a voucher.
"I don't find attorneys putting things in writing that aren't true," Pouls said.
Pouls also contacted retailers about the proposed discounts for bulk purchases of the cards that consumers would receive and found that it was true. And he spoke with at least one company that was interested in advertising in BBZ's mailings.
Pouls joined the program and guaranteed he would produce $9 million in sales a year and pay 5 percent or $450,000 a month as part of the deal.
He made payments in April and May but received continued complaints from brokers that BBZ was not fulfilling the cards.
Warren told him at the end of May that he was behind 35,000 cards from January, which meant about 100,000 cards total for the other months that were due.
Pouls figured he had been taken.
"When I saw this thing derailing, I started contacting my attorney," Pouls said.
And he held a conference call, laying out the whole problem to brokers who sold the vouchers. He told them that BBZ was engaging in a Ponzi scheme and they won't admit it.
"They never fall on their own sword," Pouls said during the call.
"It's always someone else's fault. They always blame someone else."
Ivan Penn can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2332.