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Sam Seltzer's Steakhouse customers left in gift card lurch

Employees weren't the only ones stung by the sudden closing of Sam Seltzer's Steakhouse on Monday.

Customers who bought or held gift cards — some sold as recently as one day before the chain's last in business — appear to have nowhere to cash them in after all six stores in Florida locked their doors.

"I just bought $172 in gift cards," said Alan Cohen, a New Port Richey retiree. "It's really upsetting."

Bernice Ingold, also a New Port Richey retiree, dined at Sam Seltzer's on gift cards Saturday, then bought some more.

"I thought $100 for a $120 gift card was a good deal, but it turned out to be pretty dirty," she said.

Some bought or received what they fear are worthless Mother's Day gifts. Others are stuck with $20 cards Pasco County hospital bought to reward volunteers.

It's another textbook case in the downside of consumers growing appetite for gift cards: they can turn worthless fast.

Sam Seltzer's officials offered no instruction for gift cardholders in a press statement announcing the closing, could not be reached for comment again Tuesday and left the doors locked at corporate headquarters in Tampa.

The closing gave other customers heartburn.

The Classic Christian School of the Arts, for instance, is scrambling to find another caterer for its $50-a-plate, 186-seat black tie Masquerade Ball fundraiser in 10 days.

"It's been just horrendous to find someone who can do that much steak on short notice," said Linda Klehammer, who serves on the organizing committee for the Pinellas Park school. "Sam Seltzer's never even called."

"Surely somebody knew they were about to close when they took and kept our deposit a couple months ago," said school director Sylvia Baker.

Customers could wait to file claims should the company file a second time for bankruptcy to liquidate assets and settle with creditors.

But that can take time, plus you compete with higher priority creditors for what could be less than you're owed, said Terry McElroy, a spokesman for the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs.

"If people file a complaint with us, we will investigate and sometimes we can mediate," he said.

Brea Greene, an investigator with Pinellas County Department of Justice and Consumer Protection, suggests immediately disputing charges with the credit card issuer if the purchase was recent.

Card holders also can file a complaint with consumer protection if they think there was intent to fraud.

Mike Naklick, a South Pasadena retiree, was able to spend down his $240 gift card balance to $80 by Saturday. But he finds how the company handled its impending end "really underhanded."

"I know they cured me of ever buying gift cards again," he said.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

Sam Seltzer's Steakhouse customers left in gift card lurch 05/18/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 18, 2010 11:13pm]
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