Time share sales: hard sell or scam?

Jake Azman/Shutterstock
Jake Azman/Shutterstock
Even though Igor Pavlovic and his wife consider themselves experienced consumers, they say that nothing could have prepared them for the sophisticated and aggressive sales pitch for a Wyndham time share that they recently endured in San Antonio.

The couple had been lured into a formal presentation with promises of “free” dinner and show tickets. “Once we got there, two salesmen gave us a high-pressure sales pitch,” says Pavlovic, a retired information systems consultant from Palm Beach, Fla. “Of course we liked the offerings and savings, but there was no way for us to verify their claims.”

You can probably guess what happened next. The Pavlovics bought a time share and then tried to cancel it. Even though the salesmen had promised that they could get a full refund “at any time” before using the benefits, the contract said otherwise. Now they were on the hook for $18,000, which didn’t include $650 in annual maintenance fees.

“It was all a lie,” says Pavlovic. “A scam.”

A look at the time-share industry’s numbers suggests that there’s a reason behind the assertive marketing techniques. The recession hit the industry like a wrecking ball hitting a flimsy condo. Sales dropped from half a million units in 2007 to 353,822 in 2011, the last year for which numbers are available, according to the American Resort Development Association (ARDA), an industry trade group. That has made a business already notorious for hard selling sell even harder.

The Pavlovic presentation raised a few concerns, including the aggressive techniques employed and the alleged misrepresentation of the cancellation terms, according to Orlando-based time-share expert Lisa Ann Schreier. “It’s horrible,” she adds. “Just horrible.”

But calling it a scam might be going too far, she says. After all, Wyndham offers real vacation resorts in some of America’s most popular destinations. It’s just that Pavlovic’s time share was sold to him in a way that he believes is less than honest, and that many of the benefits, such as low rates for accommodations, didn’t meet his expectations.

A Wyndham representative says that the company did absolutely nothing wrong. After hearing from Pavlovic, the company reviewed his transaction. “The investigation into Mr. Pavlovic’s claims showed no indication that the sales representative engaged in any improper activity or violated any of our comprehensive sales compliance policies,” says Lisa Burby, a spokeswoman for Wyndham. “In fact, we have never received any consumer complaints about this sales representative that suggest he does not follow company protocol.”

Last year, Wyndham’s San Antonio sales center conducted more than 15,800 tours. Of those customers, less than one-quarter of one percent complained about their experience, according to Burby. “While we strive to have no complaints,” she says, “we believe that this rate, which is well below one percent, is a positive reflection of our company’s dedication to our service philosophy.”

But talk to travelers who are accosted by time-share salespeople on the Las Vegas Strip or International Drive in Orlando, and you’ll hear another story.

Jennifer Moore, an attorney from Minneapolis, says that she recently sat through a sales presentation in Las Vegas in exchange for “free” tickets to a show. When a representative insisted that she would have paid less for her vacation if she’d owned a time share, she ran the numbers and proved the salesman wrong. She left the presentation despite his objections.

Another time, she accepted tickets to Universal Studios in Orlando in exchange for attending a time-share presentation. At one point during the event, she and her husband were left alone in a room to watch a video. “I mentioned to my husband that our time-share rep looked really tired and maybe sick,” she recalls. “A few minutes later, we were walking through the property and the salesman told us he had chronic fatigue syndrome, so that was why he looked so tired. I guess they monitor those spaces, eh?”

The time-share industry is trying to shed its reputation for high-pressure sales tactics. ARDA members are required to sign a code of ethics that says solicitations should “not convey a false sense of urgency through reference to or use of false conditions, restrictions or time limits.” It also stipulates that time-share companies provide “fair, meaningful and effective disclosure” of the terms of the purchase.

“Our members are committed to the highest standards and ethical behavior in vacation resort development,” says Howard Nusbaum, ARDA’s president.

Although the time-share industry’s self-reported customer satisfaction numbers are high — they held steady at 83 percent in 2012 and have fluctuated between 82 percent and 84 percent over the past decade — Nusbaum says that the industry is concerned about the negatives. To that end, it runs a Web site, VacationBetter.org, that’s designed to help consumers unfamiliar with time share and vacation ownership.

But to some experts, time-share sales will always be associated with fast-talking guys in cheap suits, ethics codes and rhetoric notwithstanding. The best defense: not being afraid to say no when you’re faced with an overly enthusiastic sales presentation, and a basic knowledge of the law.

“Time-share contract rescission periods vary from state to state and country to country,” says Schreier, the time-share adviser. “Once a consumer is past the legal rescission period, the odds are not in their favor of getting their money back.”

That’s what happened to Pavlovic when he tried to cancel. Under the Texas Timeshare Act, he had five days to get a refund on his time-share purchase, and he missed the chance.

Still, after I asked Wyndham to review his complaint, the company allowed him to cancel his contract — an unexpected but welcome resolution to this case.

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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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  • Chris Johnson

    I know quite a few people who own timeshares, and except for one, they all want to get rid of them, but they can’t even give the damn things away. The one exception shares the timeshare among several extended family members and somebody in the group always manages to use it each year, usually trading for another location, and they claim it always works out. I’m still skeptical given how easy it is to compare hotel and resort rates online, for almost any destination. But good for them. Otherwise, timeshares make zero sense to me – it’s the equivalent of prepaying your vacation hotel charges for the next 20+ years. If it were presented to you in that way, would you ever buy? Of course not. It’s just a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Furthermore, if a timeshare is so great, why buy at a presentation anyway? Just buy on the resale market, you’ll pay a far lower price and the maintenance fees will be the same.
    As for going to the presentations to get free stuff, I tried it and never found it to be worth the torture. The gifts are overhyped and ultimately nothing that great. But another friend of mine has it down to a science and does it all the time to get deeply discounted vacations, have his family eat for free, and hasn’t bought one yet. I have yet to master tactics like his and doubt I’ll ever try to do so.

  • pauletteb

    “Our members are committed to the highest standards and ethical behavior in vacation resort development,” says Howard Nusbaum, ARDA’s president. The problem is those “standards and ethical behavior” aren’t very high in the industry to begin with.

  • y_p_w

    Most forget that one also pays property taxes.

    Besides that, there are even some people wanting to give away timeshares in order to get out of the maintenance fees and taxes.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    We’re thinking about buying one on ebay. We rent a very nice unit for about $700 in shoulder season in Florida. The maintenance fees though are often about that price for the same unit so it makes me wonder if it’s worth it. Also, is there any (significant) advantage to buying Wyndham points for a, say, resort in Florida versus Tennessee all other things equal where the points in Tennessee are lower?

  • PolishKnightUSA

    At the end of a long presentation (about 3 hours into a 90 minute presentation, that’s right) the woman was trying to sell us a trial (at a high price) and I remarked that I liked timeshares and even the notion of a maintenance fee because otherwise, it’s a ponzi scheme.

    Her face turned red. “We’re not a ponzi scheme!” she protested. I said that the maintenance fees were a business sustainable model and she protested again “We’re not a ponzi scheme!”

    It’s one of those responses from her that scared me about buying on the resale market.

    Think about it: They sell millions points every weekend and the traditional ones sell a year’s worth of ‘weeks” also every weekend. They need to build more resorts for those sales but… are they? All those weeks of maintenance fees, do they go into actual week’s worth of units that people want to use?

    Simultaneously, the woman slipped and said we weren’t going to rent at the timeshare next year. “Availability is up for this resort!” she quipped which undermined the trial package she wanted us to try. If availability is low, then what good are the points for units I can’t get into? How many new owners are fighting for the same units? It’s like overselling airline seats.

  • bodega3

    Years ago when I was in Cabo, just before the big build of hotels and condos, there was a new condo timeshare project opening up. We were in San Jose and the condo was on the strip just before Cabo San Lucas. The pitch to get you to attend the sale meeting was that they provided free transportation and a meal. Many from our hotel went and at the fiesta that night at our hotel, they were laughing about the day’s event. If you didn’t buy into the timeshare after the presentation, then you paid for your transportation back (which the pitch never said roundtrip transportation, just transportation TO the presentation), which at the time was a $20 cab ride. Also, if you didn’t have your spouse with you, you couldn’t buy, as it required both, so those who came alone had to pay for the ride back, too.
    We also found out that these sales people don’t want you to be unemployeed which we were at one presentation, that we told a friend we would sit through since we were on his bonus time. That sales person wasn’t happy with us :-)

  • kierah

    We went to a time share presentation in Mexico. We were staying in Riviera Maya and we were offered private transport round trip to Cancun, breakfast in Cancun as well as heavily discounted tickets to Chichen Itza and Xcaret. It was worth a morning’s presentation to spend the day in Cancun and get the tickets. You just need to be savvy consumer.

  • Kiffer

    While vacationing in Myrtle Beach, S.C., we agreed to attend a time share meeting. (We were told that it would take no longer than two hours, and that we would receive free tickets to a dinner show.) We showed up for the “free breakfast” meeting. Five hours later, with the sales representative yelling at my 70+ year old aunt, for “discouraging” the sale, we left. I called and complained about the salesman’s behavior, and their obvious pressure tactics (getting a “manager” to come and give us a better deal?, we were given tickets to a seafood buffet. I will NEVER go to another time share sales pitch again. This was through Wyndham.

  • http://www.timesharescam.com/ Harriet Mendler

    Because of the numerous timeshare complaints, many people assure that timeshares are scams. Before making any purchase, it is important to read your contract very carefully, ask as many questions as possible, research the company and understand how timeshares work. Are timeshares scams?

  • http://www.timesharescam.com/ Vianney Carrillo

    I suspect a lot of people end up buying timeshares not because they want them, but because they’re persuaded by the hard sell pitches that accompany many of the “free gift, just listen to our presentation” type offers. The salesmen will tell you that a timeshare is cheaper than staying in a hotel, “which can cost hundreds of dollars a day!” But of course, that is the nightly rack rate at an upper-end hotel, not the weekly rate. And of course, by the time you pay the weekly maintenance fee on your timeshare ($800) plus the amortized cost of the sales price, well, you’ve paid as much, if not more than it would cost to stay in a nice Hotel. They are just way too expensive for what you get.

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  • http://www.timesharescam.com/ Harriet Mendler

    Timeshares can be a terrific purchase for some families, as they also can be a giant rip off for
    others. 50 years ago, also known as Holiday Home Sharing or timeshare travel, timeshares were created with the idea of offering fully furnished accommodations for a lower price than a full-time ownership.

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  • Grace Evans

    Timeshare fraud has been around since the timeshare idea was created, but they increase during poor economy. When times are difficult, timeshare owners are stuck with properties they can´t travel to or even afford. Desperate to recoup some money to pay for bills, they can easily become victims to scams artists pretending to be their timeshare salvation who will take upfront fees -as much as five number figures in some cases- but fail to fulfill their promise.

  • Grace Evans

    Thousands of International travelers, particularly from the US and Canada, have fallen victims of timeshare fraud while vacationing in Mexico. Resort developers hire skilled salesmen to represent their timeshares as many different attractive packages, such as financial investments, deeded properties, or vacation clubs, just to increase their sales.

  • Grace Evans

    The timeshare industry has been into the lion’s mouth for the last couple of years, and it has generated lots of controversy and discussions in many forums and blogs on the web. However, since we’re living an economic downturn, anyone would expect that the timeshare sales collapse, but instead of that the sales seem to be increasing… but this comes with a trap: timeshare scams are increasing too. That leads us to the question: then, why keep people investing on timeshares?

  • Grace Evans

    The timeshare industry has been into the lion’s mouth for the last couple of years, and it has generated lots of controversy and discussions in many forums and blogs on the web. However, since we’re living an economic downturn, anyone would expect that the timeshare sales collapse, but instead of that the sales seem to be increasing… but this comes with a trap: timeshare scams are increasing too. That leads us to the question: then, why keep people investing on timeshares?

  • Ava Buttler

    Timeshare fraud has been around since the timeshare idea was created, but they increase during poor economy. When times are difficult, timeshare owners are stuck with properties they can´t travel to or even afford. Desperate to recoup some money to pay for bills, they can easily become victims to scams artists pretending to be their timeshare salvation who will take upfront fees -as much as five number figures in some cases- but fail to fulfill their promise.