It's a great deal: $500 of free gas. And it looks legit, not like some Internet scam or some fly-by-night business with a mysterious 800 number.
The offer comes from the likes of Tire Kingdom, Lincoln and Ford car dealerships, furniture stores, electronics companies and repair businesses. The retailers give away gas card vouchers as an incentive or reward for doing business with them.
Over the last five years, the free gas deal has popped up across the nation: California, Ohio, New Jersey, North Carolina, Georgia, even in Canada.
To get their free gas cards, consumers must register online or by mail. They must send their gas receipts each month to Suite 36, Box 12 at 14100 Walsingham Road in Largo, which turns out to be not an office, but a mail drop at a Pack n Send store.
What dozens of businesses and hundreds of thousands of consumers are discovering is that the business running the free gas card program, Tidewater Marketing Global Consultants, is under investigation by the Florida Attorney General's Office. It also has dozens of complaints at Tampa Bay area consumer protection agencies and received the Better Business Bureau's lowest rating.
Consumers often wait months to receive a free gas card — if they ever get one at all.
Tidewater is owned by 36-year-old Crystal Clark, whose marketing dealings have become the stuff of bad business lore among consumer investigators.
But Clark is not retreating. Despite multiple investigations, she is expanding operations.
With tens of thousands of registrations pouring in over the Internet and into Clark's mail drop, Tidewater is adding a 10,000-square-foot facility on U.S. 19 in Clearwater for a new call and distribution center.
Clark has added another program, monthlyredemptioncenter. com, which gives gift cards to redeem at Wal-Mart, Target, Home Depot, Radio Shack, Sears and Toys R Us.
"It hasn't even hit anywhere near where it will be in two years," said Clark, standing in the lobby of her new facility, now under renovation. "The world of marketing is about to change."
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This is not the first time Clark's marketing has prompted complaints. In 2004, she incorporated Government Grants and Loans Inc. The company did not deliver on its promise to provide or help consumers obtain government grants, the Better Business Bureau said.
Dozens of consumers filed complaints with the Pinellas Department of Justice and Consumer Services. After paying a processing fee, "they received information they could get on the Internet for free," said Deborah Berry of the Pinellas consumer protection agency.
Clark blames the company's problems on her late ex-husband, who she says didn't run the business properly. It was shuttered under the weight of the complaints and a federal crackdown on similar operations nationally.
Then freebeegas.com, freebiegas.com, freegasvoucher.com and gasolineredemption.com started showing up, more than two dozen Web sites in all with addresses tied to the mail drop in Largo. They promised consumers as much as $500 in gas cards.
Tidewater Marketing would sell vouchers to retailers, who pay as little as $7 for a $500 voucher. They use them as rewards for customers who buy tires, cars, furniture, carpet or electronics.
Consumers must register for the program with their address; they agree to accept advertising mailings from Tidewater.
Each month, the consumer must send in $100 worth of gas receipts, purchased from the same brand of gas. Tidewater then sends the consumer a $25 gift card for that brand of gas.
For a $500 voucher, it would take 20 months to collect all of the gas cards — a process so time-consuming that many consumers don't follow through.
That's what Clark banks on. She refers to it as "breakage," the number of people who don't participate relative to the number of people who register. In August, for example, she said 60,000 people registered, but only 20,000 followed through.
To cover the cost of the gift cards the company does pay, Tidewater relies on voucher sales and advertising mailings.
Bob Crostarosa, senior vice president for marketing of the TBC Retail Group, which operates Tire Kingdom, said his company began distributing the gas cards in its Ohio stores, then added North Carolina, Georgia and Florida.
All along, there have been problems getting Tidewater Marketing to deliver on its promise. But Crostarosa said Tidewater usually responded to complaints.
"What we see as we ramp up more stores, Tidewater has difficulty dealing with the volume," Crostarosa said.
The trouble for Clark is she doesn't know month to month how many consumers will request the gift cards.
"If everyone does it and cashes in, she can't make it," said Kevin Jackson of the Hillsborough Consumer Protection Agency.
Don Dominguez, a former executive director of the $2-billion Private Brand Tire Group, said consumers aren't receiving their payments.
"How can you sell a $500 voucher … for $7 and award a customer $500 in free gas?" he said. "It doesn't make sense."
Dominguez alerted tire companies and has been working with the Florida attorney general about Tidewater Marketing after he found the company often was not honoring its claims.
"They never got a dime back," Dominguez said.
Dominguez said some business have reimbursed angry customers because of troubles with Tidewater. Others are concerned that they could suffer significant losses if Tidewater does not fulfill its promises.
Wendell Schott of Indian Rocks Beach filed a complaint against Tidewater in November with the Pinellas County Department of Justice & Consumer Services. "We did everything we were supposed to. We haven't received anything from them!"
Clark says her business is legitimate. "We're not a scam. We're doing the best we can."
She blames the company's problems on computer and telephone glitches.
Consumers recently could not access gas redemption Web sites. The company's 800 number had only a message, "I'm sorry this mailbox is full."
"We've had a complete database system failure," said Clark. "We had a lot of problems."
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Clark has been dealing with other issues. In May, her 46-year-old ex-husband died of an overdose of multiple drugs.
He repeatedly landed in court on charges of cocaine and crack cocaine possession from 1989 into the mid 1990s. His drug troubles ended with Pinellas County courts in 1996.
She was arrested Oct. 3 and charged with illegal distribution of oxycodone, a narcotic pain reliever similar to morphine. Police arrested her on 66th Street N in Pinellas Park with 1.3 grams above the minimum trafficking weight for oxycodone of 4 grams. She pleaded not guilty and is due in court in January.
Meanwhile, complaints stack up against Tidewater. After receiving more than 200 complaints, the state Attorney General's Office is conducting a consumer investigation of Tidewater's operations. The agency has issued an advisory on its Web site about the investigation.
The Better Business Bureau has 182 pending complaints and 207 total from the last 12 months.
Tidewater generally resolves its complaints, said Better Business Bureau spokesman John Zajac, but "the company has an unsatisfactory record with our organization. "That's the worst rating a company can get."
Clark, a petite, fast-talking woman, says it's just the result of a run of bad luck.
"It's not anything that we intentionally did," Clark said. "We were just going through a rough time."
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Ivan Penn can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2332.