The battered timeshare industry has set up its own regulator in a desperate attempt to tackle organised criminals defrauding customers, and to restore a reputation left in tatters by a string of scandals.
The latest spate of fraud aims not to sell new holiday timeshares but to sting existing owners. Often short of cash and facing retirement – or regretting their original investment – they are being targeted with fake offers to buy out their timeshares or switch them into new holiday deals that may not even exist.
Some crooks pose as representatives of blue-chip companies, using fake identity cards with the logos of top holiday firms. Experts believe crooked operators may outnumber the honest firms in the sector.
Now the industry is fighting back with the creation of the Timeshare Taskforce. It is being set up by The Resort Development Organisation – representing many legitimate timeshare firms – the timeshare owners’ association TATOC and the European Consumer Centre, an advice network backed by the EC and the Government.
Paul Gardner Bougaard, head of the RDO, told The Mail on Sunday: ‘Fraudsters are seriously damaging the reputation of the industry and yet there has been a lack of action against them in both Britain and Spain due to a lack of resources and political will. So we decided it was time to take action ourselves.’
The taskforce will be run by KwikChex, the investigation bureau that checks online reviews on sites such as TripAdvisor.
Chris Emmins, co-founder of KwikChex, said: ‘These fraudulent businesses come in many guises. They use the internet and telephone cold-calling to trap the unwary and they are clever, using misinformation, impressive looking websites and useless guarantees to lure their victims in.’
The industry is still huge in the UK with 600,000 people owning timeshares granting a right to stay in holiday homes a few weeks a year.
While there are thousands of contented timeshare owners, it is estimated that a fifth are keen to sell, many of whom are too old to take advantage of their resort weeks and whom fraudsters see as easy prey.
One way criminals lure them in is by posing as a legitimate reselling firm, telling owners that they have found a buyer for their timeshare.They then demand an introduction fee of hundreds or thousands of pounds to match the seller to the buyer. Once the fee is paid, the company is never heard from again.
Emmins said: ‘Some owners are desperate to sell after perhaps being lured into buying a timeshare in the first place, so this makes them doubly vulnerable.’
Another simple but effective fraud is for firms to contact owners to say they could have a legal claim against the people who first sold them their timeshare, or that a group action is taking place and they could be due compensation if they join and contribute to the legal fund. Again, once money has changed hands, nothing more is heard of the ‘class action’.
Fraudsters are also using aggressive tactics, reminiscent of the high-pressure selling methods often used to browbeat victims into buying a timeshare in the first place.
Owners are invited to meetings in hotel conference rooms and told that not only can they sell their timeshare, they can invest in a ‘holiday club’ that promises big discounts on accommodation in popular resorts to provide a more flexible alternative to fixed-location timeshares.
Investigators used by KwikChex have gone to these meetings and found forceful selling from sales staff wearing fake badges that made it look as if they were linked to VisitEngland – the national tourist board – and to genuine travel companies such as Thomas Cook and First Choice.
Once contracts are signed, buyers find they have paid a costly joining fee to a club that doesn’t exist, with no guarantee their timeshare will be sold. Worse, they are tied in to an annual subscription costing thousands of pounds to the holiday club.
Emmins said: ‘The problem is that timeshare owners tend to be elderly and less cynical than most to have signed up in the first place, and are now desperate to get out. We’ve seen people duped two, three, or even four times.’
The taskforce is gathering details of firms selling timeshares, listing who owns them, what trade bodies they belong to and whether their directors have been prosecuted.
Emmins said: ‘Timeshare owners wishing to sell or seek legal advice should first carry out robust checks.’ Bougaard added: ‘Legitimate companies will never cold-call.’
A spokesman for TUI Travel, which owns the Thomson and First Choice brands, said: ‘None of our business operations has ever been involved in the timeshare industry and we have no knowledge of, or connection with, anyone claiming otherwise.’
How 'Goldfinger' mastered selling an illusion
The ‘timeshare’ concept, where holiday homes are shared between owners, was launched in Britain in the 1960s, but the idea hit its peak in the 1980s as income and appetite for foreign holidays took off.
However, the word soon become synonymous with fraud and mis-selling after scandals such as the notorious case of John ‘Goldfinger’ Palmer, who was found guilty of masterminding in Tenerife one of the largest frauds and jailed for eight years.
But despite tougher new regulations brought in by the European Union, the industry is still targeted by crooks who move from business to business to avoid detection.
Last year, seven firms that mis-sold a holiday scheme while purporting to propose action over mis-sold timeshares were wound up by the High Court following an investigation by the Insolvency Service.
They were Club Class Concierge Ltd, Bridge View Consultants Ltd, Club Class, Club Class Concierge, Club Class International, Club Class Holdings and Club Class Corporation. All were involved in marketing a fictitious scheme called the International Timeshare Refund Action.
The companies held meetings where timeshare owners were encouraged to sign up to legal action against timeshare mis-selling, conducted by the ITRA. Instead, owners were subjected to ‘intense pressure’ during six-hour meetings to buy holiday club membership. In return they were told they would be able to sell their timeshares. In fact they ended up still paying the original timeshare fees as well as the extra holiday club costs.
The Insolvency Service said: ‘These companies were set up with the aim of duping consumers who in some cases had already suffered from unfair timeshare deals, by using slick patter for what was in reality the selling of an illusion.’
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