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State steps up inquiry into Tidewater gas vouchers

Tidewater president Crystal Clark blames computer and telephone problems.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Tidewater president Crystal Clark blames computer and telephone problems.

With complaints piling up across the country against the Largo-based distributor of free gas vouchers, the Florida attorney general is broadening his investigation and is about to issue subpoenas.

The company, Tidewater Marketing Global Consultants, also is under fire from other state attorneys general, including those in Washington and Oregon.

Other states, including Maryland, have been receiving complaints about Tidewater failing to fulfill promises from its gas voucher program, which offers as much as $500 in free gas through retailers that distribute vouchers to customers as incentives and gifts.

"I can confirm that our office does have an open investigation into this company and we are currently reviewing subpoena production, but I can't speak to any multistate involvement," said Sandi Copes, spokeswoman for Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum.

Crystal Clark, president of Tidewater Marketing, did not respond to phone calls. Her voice mailbox stated it was full.

Clark has blamed computer and telephone problems for consumer frustration with the program. On her company's Web site, Tidewater stated that the telephones would be down until Monday as new lines are installed in a new 10,000-square-foot facility off U.S. 19 in Clearwater.

For Tidewater's program, consumers receive gas vouchers from retailers. Consumers must register with Tidewater and send $100 worth of gas receipts each month, for which they will receive a $25 gift card each month until the full value of the voucher is reached.

Tidewater had required a $5 registration fee, but has since dropped that requirement.

Authorities have been on alert about the program because of hundreds of complaints to attorneys general, the Better Business Bureau and consumer protection agencies.

The complaints and investigations are prompting some retailers to end the program for fear the negative publicity will damage their reputations. They also worry unfulfilled promises by Tidewater could cost them substantial money if they have to pay customers for what is owed them from the program.

"We pulled all of our advertising and distribution of the cards," said Richard Smith, who handles customer relations for Bob's Carpet Mart. "We stopped all our promotions and advertising."

Smith said the company will warn any of its customers who ask about the program of the questions that have been raised about Tidewater.

Hyundai of New Port Richey is compiling its own list of customer complaints to ensure that the auto dealership's customers who received gas vouchers are delivered what is owed them.

"They bought a car from us, and they expected a service," said Wendy Longley, who handles advertising for Hyundai of New Port Richey. "We're going to make sure they get it.

"They're not going to remember who Tidewater was," she said. "They're going to remember who we are."

Robert Glantz, a 60-year-old custodian with the Pasco County school system, said he won't soon forget the whole ordeal. Glantz spent some $35,000 on two Hyundais.

He figured the two $500 gas cards would pay for his gas as he worked to eliminate credit card debt and ease the burden of the new car payments.

But after months of filing the required documentation to receive his gas cards, he never got what was promised until after his numerous complaints and inquiries by the St. Petersburg Times.

"I'm stretching myself at $820 a month for two car payments," Glantz said. "This to me was a total misrepresentation."

At least when things weren't working with Tidewater, Glantz could complain to Hyundai.

But Lois Pardoll was left wondering where to turn after she bought four Bose sound systems and received four gas vouchers worth $2,000 from Sound Advice, which has since gone out of business.

Pardoll, a 61-year-old retiree from Treasure Island, said the promise of the gas cards led her to make the electronics purchase at Sound Advice.

"We didn't do it because of the gas card, but with the gas card it made it the cheapest place we could get it," Pardoll said.

Efforts to contact Tidewater about her cards have left Pardoll with nothing but the run-around.

"I've called several times; I've e-mailed," Pardoll said. "I felt like at this point, nothing is really going to happen and I was just giving up."

The Washington attorney general posted a blog saying that "vouchers offering free gas appeal to not only drivers, but also businesses looking for a low-cost promotional tool to lure potential customers to car dealerships, seminars, etc. But these incentives can be misleading."

The blog noted that one Washington consumer who followed the redemption steps found "the gift card he received can't be used at any of the gas stations in his community. In fact, he was told it can only be redeemed at certain stations in a handful of other states — the closest is Minnesota!"

A stream of posts followed the blog item from early November until recent days with some calling for a class-action lawsuit against Gasoline Redemption, which is one of the gas card redemption sites run by Tidewater.

Tidewater has more than two dozen Web sites promoting its free gas voucher program.

Ivan Penn can be reached at ipenn@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2332.

State steps up inquiry into Tidewater gas vouchers 12/19/08 [Last modified: Friday, December 26, 2008 10:24am]

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