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Customers left in lurch with useless gift certificates

Mar. 27, 2009 - 12:35PM   |   Last Updated: Mar. 27, 2009 - 12:35PM  |  
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Commissary patrons have been left holding useless commissary gift certificates after the company that administered the program, CertifiChecks Inc., abruptly went out of business Feb. 26.

But customers who have the military exchanges' "Gifts from the Homefront" CertifiChecks gift certificates can still use them at Army and Air Force Exchange Service, Navy Exchange Service Command and Coast Guard Exchange stores.

How is that? It has everything to do with the way the store systems are run. The commissary agency is run with taxpayer dollars. The exchanges are not and have taken the onus off customers in trying to get their money back.

The commissary system can't do that so easily. "As an appropriated fund entity, in accordance with federal law, we can no longer accept these certificates at this time," Philip Sakowitz, director and chief executive officer of the Defense Commissary Agency, said in a Feb. 27 announcement.

Commissary officials have asked defense officials to approve a plan that would allow them to reimburse customers holding commissary gift certificates, DeCA spokesman Kevin Robinson said. Thus, DeCA officials suggest that customers keep their unredeemed CertifiChecks. DeCA expects defense officials to make a decision within the next several weeks.

In 2008, patrons bought more than $3.9 million worth of commissary gift certificates. Commissary officials could not say how much of that total has not yet been redeemed.

AAFES officials are reviewing legal options to provide reimbursement for the CertifiChecks, spokesman Judd Anstey said. There is no time limit for customers to use the Gifts From the Homefront CertifiChecks.

Navy Exchange officials will honor the CertifiChecks at face value for merchandise through the end of May, but no cash back can be given. After that, they will offer customers NEX gift cards in exchange for the full face value of their CertifiChecks.

At press time, information was not available on whether Marine Corps exchanges will continue to accept the certificates.

CertifiChecks Inc. announced Feb. 26 on its Web site that it had ceased operations and is filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. DeCA was not officially notified until March 3, by letter, and has been unable to reach CertifiChecks officials.

The company's commercial phone number in Dayton, Ohio, has been disconnected. A toll-free number provided on the Web site is a recording that does not allow a caller to leave a message.

The CertifiChecks Web site says people holding certificates who wish to submit them for "potential reimbursement" can send them to: CertifiChecks Inc.; Attn: Redemption Dept., P.O. Box 13603, Dayton, OH 45413.

"We're aware of the circumstances, but unless legal action is taken, we can't comment," said Kim Kowalski, a spokeswoman for the Ohio attorney general's office. If customers have tried to get reimbursement using the directions on the Web site and are unable to do so, they can file complaints with the Ohio attorney general's office at http://www.speakoutohio.gov/">http://www.speakoutohio.gov/, or by calling (800) 282-0515.

Terene Chatfield, director of administrative solutions for the Better Business Bureau of Dayton-Miami Valley Inc., advises that if you do send in a gift certificate for reimbursement, make and keep a copy of the front and back.

A number of certificates were bought as donations for military families in need through installation chaplains and several nonprofit organizations. The Fisher House Foundation has told managers of Fisher Houses to send any remaining commissary CertifiChecks to foundation headquarters, spokesman Jim Weiskopf said.

Managers also have been encouraged to give out any remaining exchange service CertifiChecks to families as quickly as possible and encourage families to use them within the next few months.

This all begs the question: If people bought CertifiChecks at face value, redeemable in denominations ranging from $5 to $100, plus a "processing fee" of $4.95, why isn't the money available somewhere in an account, for refunds?

The commissaries and exchanges received no revenue from their operating agreements with CertifiChecks. And about one-third of the gift certificates bought through the exchanges' Gifts From the Homefront program have not yet been redeemed, AAFES said.

AAFES officials said that between March 2003 and Dec. 31, 2008, the latest month for which data is available, 112,307 exchange gift certificates valued at $2.4 million were purchased. As of March 2, some 37,602 gift certificates valued at $731,395 had not been redeemed.

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