June 6, 2013
Consumers Cautioned to Beware Travel and Timeshare Schemes
Selling or donating your timeshare, or hoping to land a great deal on a vacation getaway? You might be particularly vulnerable to certain scams, Department of Consumer Protection Commissioner William M. Rubenstein and Attorney General George Jepsen warned today.
“Connecticut is joining the Federal Trade Commission and other consumer organizations nationwide in a multistate, multi-national law enforcement initiative to call attention to a host of bogus travel and timeshare deals,” Rubenstein said. “At best, these offers are of little value to consumers, and at worst, many are outright rip-offs. As today’s announcement suggests, there have been and still are dozens of travel-related schemes operating, so consumers need to be aware and informed to avoid them.”
Attorney General Jepsen urged consumers to “beware of any unsolicited offers and companies that ask you to pay fees up front with a credit card or wire transfer. Use due diligence to check out these companies thoroughly before you provide any money. Don’t be pressured into making a costly mistake.”
Today’s nationwide announcement is a culmination of participation among federal, state and international regulatory authorities, and includes 190 enforcement actions, with nine actions brought by the Federal Trade Commission, 83 separate actions taken in 28 states, 58 criminal prosecutions involving 168 criminal defendants and 24 international enforcement actions. More information from the FTC is here.
“Timeshare resales or donations and travel bargain schemes are often two sides of the same coin,” Rubenstein said. “In Connecticut, we are investigating three companies involved in these industries: Donate Title d/b/a Resort Members Association, Vacation Smart International, and RSI, or Reservation Services International. We have referred these companies to the Office of the Attorney General for legal action to enforce subpoenas and civil investigative demands issued to them, which they have not fully complied with so far.”
“This week, postcards advertising a new “Fly Away” promotion and incorporating the American Airlines name and logo are showing up in Connecticut residential mailboxes, promising recipients free airfare for two, along with a three-day, two-night hotel stay in return for calling a toll-free number on the postcard,” the Commissioner said. “Persons calling the number are then invited to a free 90-minute seminar. We advise consumers to consider this offer with caution, and not to be pressured into buying any travel services without first taking sufficient time to check out the true costs and benefits. Offers similar to this in the past have involved a very hard-sell to pay big money to join a discount travel scheme of questionable value.”
Attorney General Jepsen said his office is seeking to enforce subpoenas and civil investigative demands issued to the three companies by the Department of Consumer Protection. “These companies have resisted compliance, for example, by failing to provide Connecticut consumer contracts and/ or customer lists. Our office will be seeking court orders requiring the companies to comply with the information and document requests,” he said.
Timeshare Sale Scam: Timeshare owners looking to sell may be contacted by companies that say they have an eager, ready buyer – but the owners must pay the company a fee before the deal can be struck. In most cases, consumers who pay the fee eventually discover that there was never a buyer, they never hear from the company again, and they never get the refund they were promised.
Timeshare Transfer or Donation Scam: Owners may want to transfer ownership of their timeshare to avoid paying ongoing maintenance fees on a property they no longer use. Bogus companies offer to coordinate the timeshare donation for an upfront fee of up to $5,000, assuring the owners that their ongoing maintenance responsibilities will cease. Many owners have paid such fees only to find out that scammers made off with their money without conducting the transfer of ownership or donation. These owners are out $5,000 and still responsible for all the ownership-related costs of their timeshare.
The Commissioner and the Attorney General offered the following best practices for selling a timeshare:
•Deal only with licensed real estate brokers or agents. Check with the Real Estate Commission in the state where your timeshare is located to make sure the real estate agent or broker has a current license.
•Get all terms in writing before you agree to anything. That includes services that will be performed, timing of the sale, fees and commissions, cancellation and refund policies. If a company says you have to act now or you might miss out on a buyer, it’s not a company you want to do business with.
•Be wary of any company that contacts you, and check them out thoroughly before you agree to anything. Search online by entering the company name and the word “complaints” or “scam.”
•Be alert to the repeat scam. If you were scammed once by a timeshare reseller, another scammer might offer to help get your money back — again, for a fee. (Could the two be working together?) Legitimate companies don’t ask you to pay before you’ve gotten your money back.
“Free Travel” Scam: Recent “free travel” offers have surfaced in the form of emails or post cards that promise a free trip in return for the consumer attending an information seminar. The so-called seminar is often a hard-sell session aimed at getting attendees to sign up for costly travel “clubs.” The luxury vacation getaways never materialize as promised, if at all.
The Commissioner and the Attorney General advise consumers to report and avoid offers that include any of the following:
•Postcards, emails, letters or phone calls claiming you won a free vacation -- but you have to pay some fees first. A legitimate company won’t ask you to pay for a prize. This is a red flag.
•The prize company wants your credit card number. Even if they say it’s just for “verification,” “taxes,” or “port fees,” don’t give it to them. It’s very likely these people are not who they claim to be.
•The company calls, texts, or emails you out of the blue. Before you do business with any company you don’t know, search online by entering the company name and the word “complaints” or “scam.” Then contact the Department of Consumer Protection at 1-800-842-2649 and the Connecticut Better Business Bureau at 203-269-2700 to ask if there are any complaints about this company. You may also use the BBB’s website: http://ct.bbb.org
•They don’t — or can’t —give you specifics. The persons on the phone or at the seminar promise a stay at a “five-star” resort or a cruise on a “luxury” ship. The more vague the promises, the less likely they’ll be true. Ask for specifics, and get them in writing.
•You get pressured to sign up for a travel club for great deals on future vacations. The pressure to sign up is a sign to walk away. Such “travel clubs” often have high up-front membership fees which buy you a limited choice of destinations or travel dates.
•You get a robocall about the offer. Robocalls from companies are illegal if you haven’t given a company written permission to call you. That’s true even if you haven’t signed up for the national Do Not Call Registry.
If you think you have been targeted by a travel or timeshare scam, please report it immediately to the Department of Consumer Protection at firstname.lastname@example.org
Assistant Attorneys General Brendan Flynn and Michele Lucan, with Phillip Rosario, Consumer Protection department head, are assisting the Attorney General with this effort.