CLEARWATER — Consumer warning: Stop sending in those receipts for your free gas. You can pretty much forget about ever collecting even a dime from the company that made the offer.
Tidewater Marketing Global Consultants, a Largo-Clearwater based company, owes customers more than $10 million but has less than $300 in its bank accounts. It has no real property, no cars.
"It's extremely unlikely that Tidewater would ever be able to redeem the certificates and issue cards," said Charles Stutts, the state appointed receiver charged with investigating Tidewater's operations. He released his initial report Friday.
The company has distributed hundreds of thousands of vouchers for free gas through retailers in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico. Stutts' conclusion: It was one grand sham.
"The defendants literally created the 'certificates' and 'vouchers' out of thin air," Stutts wrote in his report. "... At no time, however, did the defendants have sufficient assets or capital to actually satisfy their obligations to purchase and issue the prepaid cards to consumers who satisfied the redemption criteria."
Stutts concluded that Tidewater's "business model lacked economic viability from the outset.''
With his initial review, Stutts also cautioned consumers about protecting their personal information because he said he saw signs that their information might have been sold to a third party. He said consumers should carefully consider engaging any other company offering gas vouchers.
"As I've looked into this, I would just be careful about dealing with any of them," Stutts said in an interview.
The state seized Tidewater's operations two weeks ago after complaints mounted from consumers and retailers that the company was not fulfilling the promises made in its free gas card program.
Retailers bought gas vouchers from Tidewater in denominations as high as $500 and delivered them to consumers as incentives for purchases or even just to visit their stores and test drive cars.
Consumers were required to register their vouchers with a $5 payment and send $100 worth of gas receipts each month. In exchange, Tidewater promised a $25 gas card each month until the consumer reached the full value of the voucher.
Tidewater suggested to retailers and consumers that its gas voucher program was backed by oil companies, though the company's owner, Crystal Clark, told the St. Petersburg Times that the oil companies were not involved.
Stutts found some 130,000 consumers registered with Tidewater, but the number could be much higher. He found boxes with thousands of pieces of unopened mail in Tidewater's offices.
"It should be noted that the offices were in an extreme disarray, with documents and files strewn about the floor and desktops, multiple boxes of unidentified, unopened mail located throughout the offices, leftover food and drinks, and inoperable equipment," the report stated.
Tidewater printed more than 2 million vouchers, the report stated.
Those vouchers were sold to such retailers as members of the TBC Retail Group, which includes Tire Kingdom and Big O Tires; Kia, Ford, Chrysler, Nissan, BMW, Hyundai dealerships across the country; electronics stores such as the bankrupt Tweeter and Sound Advice brands as well as the Big Screen Stores in the Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., area; and furniture stores, including Ashley Furniture and some La-Z-Boy, Bassett and Thomasville stores.
The retailers have feared they might be responsible for repaying consumers if Tidewater did not come through. Such an onus couldn't come at a worse time for the retailers, which are trying to gain footing in the deteriorating economy.
John Zajac, a spokesman for the Better Business Bureau, said consumers should contact the retailers that gave them their vouchers to see what, if any, steps they might be taking to satisfy the gas card obligations.
There are 17 states actively investigating Tidewater and its operations.
One of the lead investigative bodies is the Pinellas Department of Justice and Consumer Services, which is conducting a criminal review of Tidewater and its president, Clark.
Deborah Berry of the Pinellas consumer agency said Stutts' findings should remind consumers to carefully guard their personal information, in particular when they do not know the party that is supposed to fulfill the obligation.
"I know they felt kind of safe giving their information because a vendor gave them the coupons," Berry said about Tidewater's case. "You really don't know who these people are."
Don Dominguez, a tire and tire incentive broker who raised concerns about Tidewater's operations to local and state law enforcement, questioned why Tidewater did not have any money after selling the vouchers to nationwide corporations.
"I'm just absolutely stunned with the volume of business that she did ... to have nothing in her bank account, is absolutely astonishing," Dominguez said. "I'm dumbfounded."
Ivan Penn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2332.