Call it Groundhog Day for the free gas voucher incentive business.
Repeating some of the same problems that led the state to shutter a Tampa Bay area company three months ago, the latest company to issue free gas vouchers continues to see dozens of consumer complaints mount against it.
Online complaint boards are lighting up with comments about BBZ Resource Management Inc., and the Better Business Bureau logs complaints almost daily from angry consumers who have participated in the latest gas voucher program and the new grocery voucher program.
BBZ became a major distributor of the vouchers after the collapse of Tidewater Marketing Global Consultants, a Largo-Clearwater-based company. BBZ has sold gas vouchers and grocery vouchers by the tens of thousands.
Incentive sales brokers throughout the Tampa Bay area say they have been inundated with advertisements and marketing about the new product as gas prices rise. And some major retailers are snatching up the vouchers, despite warnings about the programs' financial soundness.
Among BBZ's major clients is Ashley Furniture, a popular chain in the Tampa Bay area that distributed Tidewater's vouchers.
"I do know we've received some complaints," said Jim Evanson, corporate credit manager for Ashley Furniture Industries Inc. "Each of them is handled case by case. Some of them go very smoothly, some of them not so smoothly."
Another major retailer, Tire Kingdom, decided against BBZ's vouchers after it was burned by Tidewater. Tire Kingdom is shelling out thousands of dollars — if not tens of thousands — to compensate customers for the failed Tidewater program.
Officials at BBZ Resource Management, based in Mesa, Ariz., continue to tell clients and consumers that they run a solid operation.
Troy Warren, one of the businessmen responsible for BBZ, did not respond to requests for an interview. His lawyer, Peter Gorski, did not respond to messages left with his staff.
Warren has run or participated in businesses in Florida, Indiana and Arizona, several of which have been the subject of civil and criminal investigations. Warren has had judgments, fines and tax liens in the millions of dollars related to his operations.
He was sued by the president of Tidewater Marketing for copying its program. The suit did not move forward before Tidewater shut down in February.
Tidewater failed to deliver on most of the cards and owes $10 million to consumers across the United States, Puerto Rico and Canada. When the state acquired Tidewater's records, authorities found just $300 in the company's bank accounts.
The Better Business Bureau received almost 3,500 complaints about Tidewater, and the Pinellas County State Attorney's Office has opened a criminal investigation.
Familiar rebate vows
BBZ distributes its vouchers in a similar way to the Tidewater program.
It sells the vouchers to brokers for as little as $5 to $10 per $500 certificate. The brokers then sell them to retail stores for as much as $25.
Big-name brands such as Ashley Furniture, Chicago-area electronics chain Grant's Appliances and numerous car dealerships give away the vouchers as incentives or promotional gifts for customers who buy furniture, electronics, cars or other products.
Customers then send in $100 worth of receipts for gas or groceries each month. In return, BBZ says it will send them a $25 gift card until the full value of the voucher is reached — a process that would take 20 months to complete on a $500 voucher.
BBZ sold as many as 160,000 certificates in March alone, according to e-mail messages the company officials sent to brokers.
So how can BBZ sell vouchers for as little as $5 each and pay all those customers up to $500 each in gift cards? The company says sales revenue is supported by advertising dollars from retailers. BBZ also knows that some consumers won't send in receipts or follow the other requirements.
The court-appointed lawyer responsible for reviewing Tidewater's operations, however, cautioned consumers against becoming involved with the vouchers, because they lacked a sustainable business model.
"As I've looked into this, I would just be careful about dealing with any of them," said Charles Stutts, a lawyer with Holland & Knight who was appointed by the court to examine Tidewater.
On Ripoffreport.com, some consumer complaints call the programs an outright "scam."
One post said BBZ refused to issue a gift card because the consumer didn't submit documents on time. "It was postmarked for the correct month and all of my inquires have fallen on deaf ears. I have e-mailed almost daily for three weeks — no response."
Another complained: "To this date, May 21, 2009, I have not received my gift card for Jan. 09. When I e-mailed them in Apr '09, they said that it will be mailed end of April. I don't live in the moon, and I am sure that I should have received it by now, if they were true to their words."
The Arizona Attorney General's Office does not disclose whether consumer complaints have been filed against a business or whether the office is conducting an investigation. The Better Business Bureau logged 103 complaints against BBZ as of Thursday.
BBZ has resolved some complaints filed with the Better Business Bureau, which continues to watch developments with BBZ.
"Some of the consumers said they didn't receive their cards even after they followed the rules," said Felicia Thompson, spokeswoman for the Arizona branch of the BBB.
Spencer Blank, a 59-year-old Ocala resident, received one of BBZ's gas vouchers for visiting mountain lake property in Ocoee, Tenn. He has submitted his receipts since December but received only one $25 gas card.
"Months go by and you get nothing," Blank said. "I don't like being taken advantage of. … I think most people just wash their hands of it after a while."
Michael Bueschel, a Chicago firefighter, is still waiting for a single gas card after turning in his gas receipts to BBZ for February, March, April and May.
"I never got a dime from them," said Bueschel, who received his card when he bought a flat-panel TV from Grant's Appliances. "They kept on assuring me, everything is fine. Nothing ever came of it; just more excuses."
Marc Shamus of Fontana, Calif., helped promote and sell the vouchers. Shamus said he quit doing business with BBZ over a month ago because of questionable business practices, including the company's failure to deliver products as promised.
"I've lost customers over it," Shamus said. "The game keeps changing to the point where they're very much a danger to the public. I'm very upset about how they're running things."
Shamus worked with Mary Jaco, who works with BBZ. Jaco said Shamus "should be ashamed of himself. He made thousands of dollars" — which Shamus admits is true.
Jaco of Jupiter speaks proudly of BBZ and said the company's business is growing.
"I would be the first to defend them," she said.
Ivan Penn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2332.