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As sales continue and complaints mount, gas vouchers are questioned

Seven months after the Florida Attorney General's Office posted a notice on its Web site that it was reviewing allegations of "unfair business practices'' in a gas redemption program, the agency is finally going to sit down with the company.

In the meantime, thousands of people continue to sign up for the program, run by Tidewater Marketing Global Consultants. The Largo company markets vouchers for as much as $500 in free gas, but many consumers say they have received nothing.

Just this past weekend, Jason's Furniture in New Jersey ran fresh ads for Tidewater's gas program. Meanwhile, in west Florida, the number of complaints to the Better Business Bureau has doubled, just since Dec. 1.

It was back in the heat of summer, in the middle of July, that the Florida Attorney General's Office posted the notice about Tidewater, but it won't be until Tuesday that the agency will sit down with the company to get an accounting of what has gone wrong.

Seven months to arrange a meeting. Why so long?

A spokeswoman for Attorney General Bill McCollum would not address that. "We'll be happy to let you know what the outcome of the meeting with the company is next week," Sandi Copes said. "Prior to that, I'm afraid we don't have any new information available."

• • •

For months, the Better Business Bureau fielded complaints and forwarded them to Tidewater. The company responded, the bureau said, and issued the appropriate gas cards.

But in December, Tidewater cut off communication.

"They have stopped responding to our complaints," said John Zajac, a spokesman for the Better Business Bureau's west Florida office. "They had requested a meeting a couple weeks prior to Christmas. They never came."

The Better Business Bureau has received more than 1,200 complaints and counting, about half of them in the last eight weeks.

The Pinellas Department of Justice and Consumer Services also has seen a spike in complaints. Of the 72 complaints it has received, 59 have come since Dec. 1.

Internet chat rooms continue to light up with questions about whether the program is a scam, and frustrated callers continue to bombard consumer agencies with complaints.

Many of those who say they have been victimized have had their frustration compounded by what they consider the snail's pace of anybody to crack down on Tidewater.

After discovering that Tidewater was not fulfilling promises on gas vouchers he had distributed, Don Dominguez, a tire and tire incentive broker, said he complained to the attorney general. "They said they had gotten complaints from other sources and they were going to take some action.

"That was three months ago."

Robert Glantz has been complaining to the New Port Richey Hyundai dealership where he bought two cars and was supposed to receive $1,000 worth of gas cards. He still has not received a penny.

"They say, 'We can't do nothing until the attorney general finds out what's going here,' " Glantz said he was told. "That's ridiculous. The justice system could take forever."

• • •

What has complicated things for regulators is that Tidewater has responded to some complaints. Because the company has fulfilled some of its promises, who is to say it won't fulfill others?

If regulators shut down a business while it is answering some complaints, others will never get what they were promised.

Deborah Berry of the Pinellas Department of Justice and Consumer Services said it will take time to sort out what exactly is happening at Tidewater.

"Had she (Tidewater president Crystal Clark) followed through, would this have been a viable promotion?" asked Berry. "Was it financial difficulties or was it a scam? These are the questions."

Clark, did not return multiple messages seeking comment.

The Better Business Bureau has been tracking Clark for about three years, starting when she ran another marketing program that offered consumers assistance with government grants and loans. The bureau said in the end that consumers had to apply for the grants themselves.

Tidewater's gas voucher program became a hit last summer as gas prices reached $4 and more a gallon. Retailers bought the $500 gas vouchers from Tidewater for as little as $7, then gave them to their customers as incentives to make purchases.

The variety of retailers using the vouchers is staggering: Tire Kingdom, Ashley Furniture, Bassett Furniture, Tweeter and its subsidiary Sound Advice, the Big Screen Stores, Mitsubishi electronics distributors, Aaron's Rents as well as Ford, Chevrolet, Hyundai, Chrysler, Toyota and Kia dealerships.

Kevin Keller, a marketing expert at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, said legal responsibility to make sure the program's promises are met may rest with Tidewater, but retailers also have an obligation.

"When they create these kinds of offers for their customers they have to take responsibility," Keller said. The retailers "invited them to the party. They're the contact point. They're the ones who initiated it."

It's not like it would take a retailer much digging to find pointed suggestions of fraud in the program. Search Google for "freebeegas.com,'' one of Tidewater's many programs, and among the first 10 entries are these:

• Freebeegas.com scam or legit?

• Freebee Gas Complaints — Fraudulent rebate service.

• FreeBeeGas.com Complaints — Noncompliance with rebate.

• Rip-off Report: Gasoline Redemption Center — "Freebeegas.com."

Besides the attorney general investigating her business for deceptive trade practices, Clark faces a charge of trafficking oxycodone.

Pinellas Park police say she sold a police informant and an undercover detective 20 OxyContin 80mg pills for $500. Her next court date is Feb. 27.

Dominguez, the tire and tire incentive broker, said that with the issues the company and its president are facing, law enforcement should have stopped Tidewater's operations long ago.

"I'm very disappointed in the fact that the AG Office and the FTC have been notified as early as October as far as my part is concerned,'' he said, "and I'm searching for every possible avenue to alert the public.''

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Ivan Penn can be reached at ipenn@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2332.

Got a complaint?

Consumers with gas voucher complaints have been asked to contact the Pinellas Department of Justice and Consumer Services at (727) 464-6200 or visit pinellas

county.org/consumer.

The Attorney General's Office can be reached at 1-866-966-7226 or visit myfloridalegal.com.

As sales continue and complaints mount, gas vouchers are questioned 01/29/09 [Last modified: Friday, January 30, 2009 9:12am]

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