'Free gas' card has strings attached

The offer of free gas has been bringing customers in to Dollar GMC in Medford in droves.

"It's the greatest thing we've ever done," said Todd Worcester, general manager.

But the processing fee and lengthy list of requirements to redeem the offer have left some participants confused and doubtful.

Dollar GMC's five-day promotion, which includes drawings for other prizes, began Wednesday. Fliers were mailed throughout the region offering gas cards worth $100 or more.

Shady Cove resident Les Schwab — no relation to the tire retailer — figured it was worth a trip to Medford to claim a $100 gas card. The sales person he met even boosted his winnings to a $300 gas card.

"I had a friend drive us into town, because I don't drive," Schwab said. But Schwab balked when he began reading through the details of redeeming his free gas card. The sticking point, he said, was a $5 deposit and the requirement that receipts be mailed to Free Gas Central in Largo, Fla.

"I'm afraid there are thousands of people that will pay money out of their pocket they don't have," Schwab said.

Ashland artist Dennis Downs was less charitable after finding out his parents received the mailer.

"A lot of older people fall for that," he said. "It would appear they won something. You know when something is too good to be true."

Crystal Clark, president of Tidewater Marketing, a 17-year-old Largo, Fla., firm that has run the Free Gas Central redemption program since November 2003, said there are 78,000 users and most are satisfied with it.

The process takes patience but proves worthwhile for consumers, she said. The program is designed for drivers using a minimum of 100 gallons of fuel per month.

"If the card is for $100, we'll send them a gift card for $25 for months," said Clark, adding the program can go up to $500 over a 20-month period.

Whatever the length, on the final month, the $5 deposit is tacked on so the card is for $30.

"We make our money on the completed redemption," she said. "It costs us about $1.50 on the front end. We sell it to our clients, who pay us for the certificates and then they market the product to auto dealers. They mark it up so they can make money. It has to be sold to a business; it can't be sold to a consumer. It has to be given away to consumers."

More than 500 auto dealers use the offers, she said.

Drivers get their money back by going to an array of participating gas stations and then sending their receipts to Free Gas Central. They must purchase the same brand of gas each month (i.e. Shell, Exxon, Wal-Mart, Costco, etc.), but it can be from any station carrying that brand.

The $25 card arrives in the mail one to two months later.

Level 10 Marketing of Slidell, La., brought the giveaway to town as part of its role during the weekend promotion.

The marketing firm's roving team boosted Dollar's sales staff to 20 — temporarily more than doubling its normal size.

"They sought me out and I called tons of references for two weeks," said Worcester. "We've had a huge turnout and I'll hire these guys again, no question."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 776-4463 or e-mail business@mailtribune.com.

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