Vancouver car dealer to refund consumers burned by misleading contest
OLYMPIA – Gas vouchers were a hot promotional tool last year, used to lure potential customers to dealerships, furniture stores and seminars. But as gas prices rose, so did the number of consumers fuming about these so-called free fill-ups. A Vancouver, Wash., car dealer must now reimburse customers who responded to one such promotion that the Washington Attorney General’s Office says was deceptive.
In an effort to boost car sales, Curt Warner Chevrolet, Inc., mailed a “Scratch and Win” promotion to Vancouver residents over April 3-6, 2008. Consumers scratched the card to reveal a number that determined their prize. The big bounty was $25,000 cash but odds were such that recipients were nearly guaranteed to win a $40 gas voucher.
“It was a free gas offer that stank,” Assistant Attorney General Mary Lobdell said.
In all, 211 people presented the mailers to the dealership to collect their prize but obtaining the $40 in free gas proved more difficult than they expected.
“We tell consumers to read the fine print but salespeople need to do the same,” Lobdell continued. “Businesses can be held liable for deceptive advertising campaigns, even those created or managed by other companies.”
Curt Warner Chevrolet was already on probation after signing a 2007 agreement with the Attorney General’s Office to resolve concerns about its advertisements and promotions. Back then, the company paid $22,000 in attorneys’ costs and promised to comply with certain marketing rules. The Attorney General’s Office alleged the “Scratch and Win” promotion was misleading and violated the 2007 agreement.
Consumers who attempted to redeem the winning card at the dealership received a certificate to participate in a rebate program. They had to pay $5 to enroll then purchase at least $100 of gas per month. Only after mailing those receipts would they receive a gas gift card for $25. Consumers had to continue buying gas and submitting receipts to receive additional gas gift cards.
At one point, Curt Warner Chevrolet ran out of certificates and attempted to substitute a vacation that required a $50 deposit. When a Vancouver man objected, the dealership promised to mail him a $100 gas voucher. When it didn’t arrive by the promised date, he filed a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office.
The dealership eventually sent a certificate for enrollment in the rebate program, along with an apology note. But the consumer’s problems didn’t end there. After buying gas and following the strict redemption rules, the customer received a $25 gas gift card that was rejected by a local fuel station. He was told the card could only be used at Speedway and Superamerica gas stations in a handful of states – the closest in Minnesota.
Under a new agreement to be filed in Thurston County Superior Court, Curt Warner Chevrolet will pay up to $8,440 in restitution to consumers who responded to its “Scratch and Win” promotion. Eligible consumers will receive a $40 card that can be used to buy gas from a nationally recognized brand with multiple stations in the Vancouver area.
A Florida business, Tidewater Marketing Global Consultants, Inc., was behind the rebate program. The company was sued by Florida Attorney General’s Office in February 2009 and agreed to a state takeover. Consumers who visit www.freebiegas.com, one of the many Web sites where Tidewater previously advertised its rebate program, are now redirected to a page with information about how to file a claim. Company president Crystal Clark separately pled guilty to drug charges in connection with selling Oxycontin.
The Washington Attorney General’s Office posted a warning on its All Consuming blog about gas vouchers offered by Tidewater and an Arizona-based company named BBZ Resource Management, which filed for bankruptcy. Since November 2008, angry consumers nationwide have posted more than 220 comments on the blog.
Consumers are eligible if they 1) Received the “Scratch and Win” promotion and presented a winning number to Curt Warner Chevrolet during the company’s April 3-6, 2008, marketing campaign and 2) Didn’t receive $40 worth of gas.
Curt Warner Chevrolet will contact eligible consumers by mail and notify them of their right to receive a $40 gas card. Any free gas that a consumer may have already received as part of the original voucher program will be deducted from their refund. Consumers will have at least 60 days to respond to the offer.
Consumers who have questions about the settlement can contact the Attorney General’s Consumer Resource Center at 1-800-551-4636 (in-state only) or 206-464-6684 between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. weekdays.
Curt Warner Chevrolet Complaint
Curt Warner Chevrolet Consent Decree
Curt Warner Chevrolet Assurance of Discontinuance – 2007
Media Contact: Kristin Alexander, Media Relations Manager – Seattle, (206) 464-6432, firstname.lastname@example.org