Many of us take the lazy way out when it comes to gift giving. But before you give a Mother’s or Father’s Day gift certificates this year you might want to consider what can happen.
Over the past few weeks I have had three complaints from consumers who were given gift certificates for local restaurants and were unable to use them.
The latest one came from Dennis Buden, a Manchester public relations consultant, who received $200 worth of gift certificates from his nephew Rob Buden. He purchased them as Christmas presents last year from an upstate New York firm called SimplyCertificates, which runs an Internet business selling gift certificates in NY, Ct, Ohio and Massachusetts.
Buden said he used a $50 certificate for the Marco Polo Restaurant in East Hartford without any problem in January.
But when he and his wife returned to the same restaurant recently, he was told the certificates were no longer valid.
“We were informed that they no longer accept the certificates because Simply Certificates had ceased operations due to the economy,” Buden wrote me. “They showed me a letter, purportedly from Simply Certificates, indicating as such and instructing the restaurant to no longer accept the certificates from patrons because they would not be honored. I was further instructed to visit the company’s website, www.simplycertificates.com, which I did this morning.”
“There is no indication on the site that there are any problems, and visitors have the opportunity to continue to purchase certificates. When I called the company, there was a cryptic recording which I did not understand,” he wrote me explaining that instead of leaving a message he contacted the Connecticut attorney general’s office and filed a fraud complaint against Simply Certificates.
The Better Business Bureau lists three firms named Simply Certificates in upstate New York, apparently all connected to each other. Two of them have an F rating while the third one which lists gift certificates as its business, has the following alert: “According to information in BBB files, it appears that this business is no longer in business.”
I called the firm several times, no one answered during business hours and no one returned a message I had left. (WILL UPDATE IF I GET A RESPONSE PRIOR TO DEADLINE).
In many ways the second example is more tragic.
Fred Gondek sold about 40 gift certificates for his West Hartford restaurant Elements Bistro during the Christmas holidays, but then closed it without warning in January after financing he sought fell through.
People with gift certificates were furious, writing to me and to Consumer Protection Commissioner William Rubenstein complaining that they were ripped off by a restaurateur who had no business selling gift certificates when he know his business was teetering on the verge and that he might not be able to honor them.
It’s not an unusual situation. Businesses, especially restaurants, don’t pre-warn that they might close, since that would result in employees quitting, vendors refusing to provide anything unless paid on delivery and patrons would of course not buy gift certificates. But similar things can happen with beauty parlors, spas, book stores and other types of businesses.
Gondek says he feels terrible about customers losing money and promised me and the consumer protection commissioner that he would do his best to repay his debts.
“I really can’t express how bad I feel, not only for those that have the gift cards, but for all the other people that had faith in me. Losing my business will be with me for the rest of my life,” he wrote me.
“I am still looking for a job,” he wrote me. “I had what I thought was going to develop into a permanent position, but it was only temporary. I worked at the Market at Hartford 21 for three weeks to help get it open, but that was it and I used that income to pay former employees for the last week worked. I am actively looking for anything at this point and will attempt to pay back everyone but I need some sort of income to do that.”
(Please read the comment below from one customer who received her money from Gondek)
Rubenstein, whose office investigated the complaints, said he believes Gondek does intend to repay people who he owes money to.
“He is accepting the ultimate responsibility, unlike others,” Rubenstein said.
If you are going to give a gift certificate, Rubenstein suggests one from American Express. I think Amazon and Barnes & Noble are good bets and the Connecticut Restaurant Association sells gift certificates that could be used in any of the 100 restaurants.
One last thing to keep in mind is that businesses love to sell the gift cards because they know the statistics: 20 percent will never be redeemed. They will be lost or recipients won’t want to use them.
My wife and I still have at least two gift certificates from our wedding three years ago which we haven’t used. One to a restaurant that is at least 50 miles away, which we probably will attempt to use, and another one that is 80 miles away which has little chance of seeing us.
- Simply Certificates Out Of Business, Holders Of Gift Cards Out Of Luck
- Restaurant Gift Cards Safe For More Than 100 Restaurants In Connecticut
- Newington Business Refuses To Refund Unwanted Gift Certificate
- Gift Certificates: Enfield Woman Loses $150 After Picasso Salon Closes Without Warning
- Gift Cards Easy To Buy, Harder To Use
- Gift Cards Can Have Penalties In Connecticut If Not Used Within First Year