The Oldest Scam in the Book

I write about travel for a living, and have done so for four years now. One of my biggest personal crusades is teaching others how to avoid travel scams. How, then, did I end up getting soaked by the oldest scam in the book? Get comfy, kids. There’s an important story here.

We finally headed out to Charleston two days ago. Our usual MO is to stop at the Visitor Center and pick up information/brochures. So just outside of Charleston we see a Visitor Center/Welcome Center. We go in, pick up a few brochures, mess around like usual. Then I notice a flyer for free tour tickets with a disclaimer to the effect of “this is not a time share solicitation.” Cool! Sign me up! We’ve done a million presentations in cities around the world. Show up, watch a slide show, keep saying no to the persistent high pressure sales guy, pick up our free gifts and out the door. When you travel constantly, wasting an hour or so is no big deal.

So we started talking to the guy. He was thrilled to hear we’re from New Orleans–big Treme fan, never been to the city, blah blah blah. For those of you who are watching Treme, do you remember when Davis was working at the hotel and he sent the tourists to the bar in Treme? This was just like that. We asked him where the locals hang out, he looked around and furtively scribbled an address on a Post-It Note. We did end up going to his recommended location, and it was awesome! Great Cuban food, nice chill patio bar and live Mississippi Blues music.

Anyway, he actually tried to talk us out of going to the presentation, but we persisted. We signed up for free tickets to a few things and gave a $20 refundable deposit. Pretty standard.

I don’t know what came over both of us…the sales team knew exactly which buttons to push and, most uncharacteristically, we walked out of there having signed a contract for $3500! Ouch! Big ouch! But wait kids, it gets better.

Supposedly the $3500 would get us four free weeks a year in a timeshare anywhere in the world, plus all these travel discounts. Additionally, the company offered us 24/7 concierge service–which we really could have used in Seattle last year, when the hostel neglected to tell us that the front door opens directly to a staircase, making it impossible to take Dad’s scooter into the building. Would have been nice to just call someone and have them get us a room instead of lugging all of our stuff to an internet cafe.

Anyway, this company’s concept is travel wholesaling. Cut out the distributors and retail outlets and cut the price, right? Kind of like shopping at Sam’s. The sales guy showed us the website and pulled up some sample trips, and the prices really were lower than what we’ve been able to pull off, even with military discounts.

We’re members of Thousand Trails, a huge membership campground organization that’s had more than its fair share of complaints, but it really works for us. We’re so happy with it that we recently upgraded our membership. So we figured that since we travel full-time, we really would make our money back, a lot sooner and more easily than most people would.

What we didn’t do is stop and research the company. That’s the problem with these places. Everything is always “OMG, today only!!!” And they wear you down. The one-hour presentation was better than two hours of high pressure. But it’s no excuse. We knew how these things work going in, and we let ourselves be pressured.

Fortunately, we also happened to be broke. It’s a week before payday, kids, and we had to do an obscene amount of work to the rig and the van this month. So we didn’t happen to have an extra $3500 sitting around, or even an extra $650 for the down payment and document fee. I gave the guy permission to run 50 bucks on my credit card and we signed a promissory note for the other $600 for Wednesday.

The company called with our website login within an hour or two. We got home around 11:30 and I logged in. To a completely different site than the one we were shown at the presentation. Can we say bait and switch? The site was almost completely bare, and the few things on it were horrendously overpriced. So we called the company…good thing we have 24/7 concierge service, right? Except that we got a voicemail with instructions to call back during normal business hours.

I dug through the website and eventually found an after-hours number…Dad called and woke up one of the alleged owners (it’s her cell phone!). She told us that number was for emergencies only, but agreed to talk for a few minutes. She informed us that the company’s “contract with travel providers” doesn’t permit them to list the real prices on the website, so we need to call (during regular business hours, of course!) every time we want to book a trip. She also told us that the condo weeks are not, in fact, included. We merely get the privilege of PAYING more than we pay with the memberships we already have for condo weeks.

Ugh, this wasn’t looking too good. So we went digging a little deeper. There are only a handful of reviews of this place online, and of those only one is less than horrible! Uh-oh. So we decide to see what happens during “normal business hours.” The next day, we try to book a weekend in DC, which we were considering anyway. The rep seemed shocked that we already had a website login, but took the details of our request. She said that somebody else, the booking agent, would call us back with a price.

Well, that was two days ago now. Still no callback. We booked our own hotel in DC, and got a fabulous price by the way. But we’d had enough. It was becoming clear that there was material misrepresentation, distortion of facts and breach of contract. Dad canceled his debit card, which we had agreed to pay the $600 on. I’m canceling my credit card tomorrow and opening a fraud dispute on the $50. We wrote a notice of rescission to the company, detailing the breaches of contract and the fact that it is now null and void. We sent that by certified mail, return receipt requested. We’re contemplating taking steps to prevent identity theft.

It gets even better, kids. When we got home from sending the letter, the website had been updated. There’s now three new phone numbers including one in Europe, and a maze of links to various travel company websites. We decided to check out the phone numbers. Out of everything we were given or found on the website, we have: two cell phones and two phone numbers that do not appear on reverse phone lookups. There is no phone number anywhere on our contract. I Googled the numbers that we have. They’re associated with literally dozens, if not hundreds, of travel websites/companies/vacation clubs around the world!

Let this be a lesson, kiddies. Never, ever, ever even THINK about signing a contract or giving out any personal information to anyone that you have not thoroughly researched. I’m telling you, I write about this stuff all day every day, and I still got duped. It’s hugely embarrassing to admit, but I figure I got lucky. I’m only out 50 bucks. How many people out there are out $8000 or more? If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

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