I paid $6,995 for a travel club membership — did I just get scammed?

Cathy Evans doesn’t fit the profile of a typical scam victim. She’s an account manager for a technology company in Boston, and she likes to think of herself as a discerning customer.

So when she got a voice mail on her cell phone offering her a “free” cruise, she did what most savvy consumers do: she deleted it.

But Evans’ boyfriend, who also got the same call, thought the “exclusive, members-only” discounts offered through a travel club called Pacific Palm Destinations in Woburn, Mass, looked appealing.

“He really wanted to go on the trip,” she says.

They attended one of its seminars and they both liked the pitch. “They claimed that they are the largest wholesale travel club and that you can buy any kind of vacation for a fraction of what you’d pay on Orbitz,” she says. Also, the renewal rate was just $169 a month, or $2,028 a year — a fraction of her initial $6,995 membership. She signed up with her credit card on the spot.

“It didn’t occur to me that none of what was promised actually even exists,” she says.

Evans asked about Pacific Palms’ cancellation policy, and a representative said although it “didn’t have one” he could give her 72 hours. After she researched Pacific Palms online, she asked for her money back.

Others aren’t so lucky. Most travel clubs offer a shorter cancellation window or none at all, even when state law requires it. They make big promises during high-pressure sales presentations held at malls or in rented office spaces. They usually target retirees with disposable income, although they’ll take your money if you’re on a fixed income, too.

But most importantly, the “exclusive” discounts don’t really exist. Any halfway competent bargain-hunter can find travel deals that are just as good or better online, no membership required.

Stories like Evans have been a staple of my consumer advocacy practice from the beginning. Here’s a virtually identical case from 2010 with a slightly different outcome. And here’s a similar club in Massachusetts in which the state Attorney General took action.

What did Evans’ research reveal? Other complaints that suggested to her that the offer was bogus. Several other reviews seemed to concur with that assessment.

The company insists its product is on the up-and-up.

“We have done nothing as a company that is unethical or against what we represent,” it wrote in a rebuttal to one online complaint. “The unfortunate thing is that people such as yourselves join our program go home and try to find a reason as to why they shouldn’t have and believe anything they read online instead of contacting us and even attempting to book travel and seeing the type of savings we can provide.”

Evans dug deeper, and says her research unearthed lawsuits and a shady network of travel clubs across the country. According to an investigator for the New Jersey state Attorney General, there’s even a course you can take in Las Vegas on how to pull off a vacation club scam. It covers everything the aspiring travel club startup needs to know, from crafting persuasive sales pitches to renting an office with a short-term lease, to dealing with pesky customer credit-card disputes.

“It really bugs me that no one is taking action and innocent people are getting ripped off,” she says.

Evans is brave to come forward with her complaint, for two reasons. Most people who participate in travel clubs and who have buyer’s remorse don’t talk about it publicly.

“Most people are too embarrassed to admit they fell for such a scam and they don’t report it,” she told me. “Probably even more people have not attempted to book their free trip or use the travel services yet — so they don’t even know they’ve been taken.”

And second, like other travel clubs, the one she’s dealing turns aggressive when its legitimacy is questioned.

“I’m concerned about this group seeking revenge against me,” she says.

Evans probably isn’t travel club material, which is yet another reason she’s so outspoken. Most of the victims I’ve met are barely computer literate. Anyone who can fire up a smart phone and type the words “Pacific Palms” and “scam” into Google is unlikely to shell out $6,995 for a club membership, regardless of how good the offer sounds.

Scam artists usually look for retired Baby Boomers who are uncomfortable using the Internet and — above all, trusting. People like my parents.

I sent Pacific Palms several emails asking about its operation and Evans’ case. A company representative responded in writing just after my deadline, saying Evans had entered into a contract with the company “of her own free will” on March 21. She asked for a refund within 24 hours and was immediately given one.

“She never attempted to use our services our got the opportunity to see what we could offer for her,” the representative said.

“Although we were sorry that we didn’t have the opportunity to work with her, Mrs. Evans had every right to cancel her contract. She exercised that right and we obliged accordingly,” it said, adding, “For her to say we scammed her in any way or that we did not do as we were supposed to is totally false.”

“On that note, please understand that you if choose to pursue any kind of slander against our company, based on these false allegations, we will seek legal counsel to stop you,” the representative cautioned.

So noted.

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: In two decades of consumer advocacy, I’ve never come across a legitimate travel club. Ever.

Is it possible that Pacific Palms is a legitimate company, and that Evans is just a disgruntled former customer? Sure, anything is possible.

By the way, if you’ve lost thousands of dollars to a travel club that you believe is fraudulent, don’t wait. Contact local law enforcement, your state’s Attorney General, and the Federal Trade Commission, as soon as possible. The more complaints these agencies receive about travel club scams, the faster they can shut ‘em down.

And don’t skip the feds; these operators like to jump across state lines and start over. An FTC consent order will make that really difficult.

In the end, travel club scams exist because we let them. We want to believe we can pay a few thousand dollars and get a “free” trip and deeply discounted travel. We’re trusting and we take people at their word. And as long as we do, these scams will continue.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • shinythings

    I was scammed by these guys (gerald jackson, josh dunham, tiffany ?, and a few others. I will not get my money back, but I hope the word gets out.
    Spend a few minutes on the interwebs and you’ll get the scoop. For Jackson, use Gerald Franklin Jackson and Jerald Franklin Jackson.
    The office in boston is closed. 

  • TonyA_says
  • msa20

    If it sounds too good to be true……

  • Extramail

    I’ve used vrbo at least a dozen times in the last 10 years and have never had a bad experience. As a matter of fact, I have had an excellent experience every single time. I do admit, however, that I will be extra cautious given recent reviews the next time I do. Maybe it’s just gotten too big too fast and is dealing with the requisite growing pains.

  • Earlthepearl

    earlharden.worldventures.biz I loved the product so much that I also started selling it too! Rovia and american arilines just made a merger I save about $800 dollars a trip

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001367140983 Gopal Das

    Unfortunately, there are still tons of  scams out there…There is a new iPhone app recently released, called Scam Detector, which exposes like 500 scams. It is worth checking it out, if you have an iPhone. The app is also online – they have a free web version, if interested. Google it, it’s kinda cool, actually.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001367140983 Gopal Das

    Unfortunately, there are still tons of  scams out there…There is a new iPhone app recently released, called Scam Detector, which exposes like 500 scams. It is worth checking it out, if you have an iPhone. The app is also online – they have a free web version, if interested. Google it, it’s kinda cool, actually.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/AAUMKBV7G732FYUATG7BS3QIZU Javis

    I am a part of a travel club with the guarenteed cheapest prices on the planet!! and i just got involved for $365. Some travel clubs are in the thousands too tho 

  • Carl Pion

    I find it odd that any one individual would pay such an exhorbitant amount of money to be in a travel club? There are a few clubs in the USA of which some are small and someare large and have global reach.

    With many of those clubs memberships have one time fees in the $200 range and monthly fees ranging from $25 to $60 per month as long as you are an active member.

    There is no doubt that most of these clubs work on a Direct Marketing basis and many members will not reap the benefits simply because they just end up not travelling for various reasons. Those that sign up as reps will also fail to earn incomes because they do not have the drive, motivation and determination to win at the game. Sales is sales and it is not for everyone that signs up. You cannot blame the rep or MLM company for each individuals failures.

    Will there be problems for those that travel? Of course there will. Will that be the norm for the majority? No it will not. Just as in any business whether it be Wal-Mart, Target, Costco or any other company, they all have client care departments to deal with unsatisfied customers. It is the way of the world. The key is how the client is handled and are their issues resolved in a timely and appropriate manner?

    I have seen many MLM structures and some are good, some are bad and some are just plain disastrous. But we still have to look at the big picture for some of them? And that is that they are doing millions of dollars of revenues, which for many are in the $500M+ range. Are you going to tell me that company with those types of revenues are scams?

    Please!! No company that big could be a scam? Customer retention is the key to a growing business. So if ever customer got scammed how could they continue to grow?

    That is my piece.

  • Carl Pion

    What Club were you part of?

  • Carl Pion

    To use the terminology that Money Upfront for a membership is a sign of a scam is in my language ” Just Ridiculous “. Try and go shopping at Costco without paying your membership dues first. Or at most Fitness Centers and so on and so on. Are you saying Costco is a scam?

  • Carl Pion

    As long as humans are around there will never ever be 100% satisfaction. It is impossible. There are people who learn from their mistakes and move on. There are people who make mistakes and let the world know about it. And in the majority of cases as in any written article, the truth is never told? Or the issue is never told in accurate detail. Those people seek out re-assurance from people like I that what they did did not only happen to them? It is about feeleing better.

    Then there are those that simply bash evrything regardless of what it is and they have never even experienced what they are bashing.

    Then in final there are those that actually benefit and reap the rewards and proudly promote.

    That is life my friends. But to see here that the travel clubs have a VOTE rate at 96% in favor of them as being SCAMS is pure signification that the majotiry of voters have never even been members of these clubs.

  • emanon256

    Perhaps if you had actually read my post, you would see that I said, “anything that required upfront payment and no time to think…” Keep reading. You can join Costco at any time, you can join a fitness club at any time. Neither of your examples have you go to a presentations and then they tell you you have to join now or you will never get that opportunity again. That is what I was referring to as a scam.

  • emanon256

    What club to you work for?

  • Jay

    Travel clubs do cost a lot of money but never that much. I joined a travel club about a year and a half ago for $365.98 one time and $65 a month. Told 4 friends about it and the company waived my monthly fee so I basically have a free membership now. The Prices of the trips are amazing!! $69 cruises and all inclusive trips starting at $199. Met some life long friends through it and it was the best decision I have ever made in my life. Just thought I would share that with you guys! I could share it with you if you are interested email me

  • jay

    World Ventures email me

  • http://KaduceusVacationTravelClub.com KaduceusVacationTravelClub

    Totally! I read that and couldn’t believe how crazy that was. Both the company for having the balls and OP for thinking that’s acceptable. I had a hard enough time accepting $200, but when I was told I coverts to dollar-for-dollar I couldn’t argue. Like Jay, I joined WV and loving the product. So much that I decided to start joinWVtoday.com to share my experience with everyone.

  • jdjd

    The article’s author, Christopher Elliott, said “In two decades of consumer
    advocacy, I’ve never come across a legitimate travel club. Ever.” Well, Mr. Elliot, I take exception.

    The main problem with the author’s statement: what falls under the definition of “travel club”?

    AAA is for all intents and purposes a travel club, as is a small group that I’m a member of (definitely not a scam–just a union of like-minded travelers who meet and share info with each other).

    What the author describes in this article is indeed a scam, but I take exception to the forcing of his definition of “travel club” on the rest of us.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Really, you’re nitpicking because of a definition? What can I say?

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    I’m a member of AAA. Since publishing this, I have qualified this statement to say that AAA is the exception to this rule. Thanks for pointing this out. I should have written the story more carefully.

  • jdjd

    Sorry, but definitions are everything. What can I say…

  • jdjd

    I’m very impressed that you took the time to post and acknowledge. And, in retrospect, I was far harsher than necessary, and I want to acknowledge that and apologize on that point.

  • Jeremy BigChips Neal

    travel clubs are not scams…People robbing people are. There are Clubs that are legit that do save you all the money…and it’s a ONE TIME fee not monthly or yearly! Just sayin…

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