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.