Robert Allison isn't one to sit back and just take it when it comes to being ripped off by someone who promised to fix his troubles with his timeshares.
Allison, 74, worked for years addressing fraud-related issues at car dealerships when he worked on the corporate audit staff for General Motors. He says "confrontation was part of my day business."
So when he and his wife, Suzann, went on vacation to Branson, Missouri, last summer, he drove about an hour to the offices of Vacation Consulting Services in Missouri to get to the bottom of why the couple still wasn't able to unload two of three timeshares in different states after they paid thousands of dollars to do so a year earlier.
"We stopped in and, boy, were they surprised," Suzann Allison said.
"You just do what you've got to do," Robert Allison added.
Robert Allison's story is one of hundreds of complaints filed in an ongoing saga involving several Missouri-based third-party companies that hold seminars, use high-pressure sales tactics and charge exorbitant upfront fees to help consumers get out of timeshares.
The Better Business Bureau said more than $2.2 million was paid for timeshare relief work that was either never done or never completed, based on hundreds of complaints in the past two years.
The BBB notes that often such complaints are the tip of the iceberg because many consumers just take their losses and never file complaints.
Social Security impostor scam: It's growing, and this is how it works
He didn't want to go with the flow
Allison isn't your typical consumer.
While Vacation Consulting Services had disposed of one property of Allison's on a golf course in Arkansas in March 2018, Allison was upset that he was still stuck with two others.
After Allison's visit last summer, the work to get the couple out of a second property in Florida was completed. Months later, though, Allison – who was a certified fraud examiner – is still fighting to deal with a third timeshare in Atlantic City, New Jersey, as well as demanding refunds associated with ongoing maintenance costs. It's been about two years since they signed a contract with the third-party exit company.
Allison said this week that if he has to do so, he'll chase down leads later this summer when the couple again goes on vacation to Missouri.
"So far, I've gotten nowhere with them. It's just like they dropped off the face of the Earth," Allison said.
"They still have a commitment to get rid of the third property."
What the exit company says
Allison has gotten the attention of Brian Scroggs, who owns Vacation Consulting Services and The Transfer Group.
Scroggs, 47, told me in a phone interview Wednesday that he disagrees with how Allison's story is being portrayed.
Scroggs calls Allison's situation a miscommunication or misunderstanding, noting that he did give Allison nearly $4,000 back in late 2018 because Allison was not satisfied with the company's efforts. Scroggs said the third timeshare was not resolved because Allison didn't give them the proper paperwork on time, including verification of ownership from Wyndham Vacation Resorts.
Scroggs provided more detail in an email response: "Sept. 13, 2017, Mr. Allison called us upset because he had asked for Wyndham to send him (the verification) that we need to move forward and they won't send it. We explained that this is a ploy by Wyndham to make it difficult for timeshare owners to exit their timeshare. We told him to keep trying. Keep in mind, the one-year deadline does not start until we receive this document."
Scroggs also said in the email: "We are not actively working on Mr. Allison's file for numerous reasons."
In the phone interview, Scroggs said he has reached out twice to Allison, who has not returned his call, and says more paperwork is necessary.
Allison said all the paperwork was turned in as of September 2018 and forwarded the Free Press more emails as proof. Allison said he has not received any calls from Scroggs.
What they don't tell you about timeshares
Buying into a timeshare can be an exciting time, filled with visions of relaxing on the beach or enjoying the sunshine in the dead of winter. But what may be glossed over is that timeshare owners likely will face maintenance fees, taxes and other assessments every year for the length of the contract. And those costs can go up.
We're talking about a lifetime of annual fees that can escalate.
What makes matters worse is that a group of third-party exit companies has cropped up.
Several are "advertising false information and using scare tactics to take advantage" of timeshare owners, according to a recent alert sent via email to customers from Wyndham Vacation Resorts. Wyndham is now telling its clients to "call us first" if they want to get out of their timeshares.
Allison got the email from Wyndham just this weekend after news broke about a BBB report detailing an explosion of complaints relating to timeshare exit companies. He never contacted Wyndham to get out of his timeshare before he turned to the outside party in May 2017.
Wyndham filed suit in September 2018 against several timeshare exit companies, including Vacation Consulting Services, charging that the businesses "engaged in a scam to take advantage of timeshare owners and cause Wyndham, its business and its established brand millions of dollars in damages."
Exit companies prey on the desperate
Bad actors may claim to be able to easily modify or cancel your timeshare – and they're asking for money – via cash or wire transfer – for a service or a tax.
"Scammers have such an opportunity because they know that people are desperate to unload these timeshares," said Amy Nofziger, AARP fraud expert.
Over the past few years, the AARP has warned that some con artists will spot that a consumer is advertising that they want to sell off a timeshare. Then, fraudsters will call claiming they have a buyer – but again somehow they need money upfront.
"The deal never closes; the scammer has simply pocketed the fees, which could run into the thousands of dollars," according to an AARP alert about how to avoid timeshare resale scams.
In the past few years, though, a new headache has cropped up. More consumers have been tempted by the idea of hiring a so-called "exit company" to get out of a timeshare when they cannot sell it.
Worn down by robocalls
Not surprisingly, timeshare owners are being targeted by robocalls, emails, TV commercials and direct mail with some sort of quick fix exit plan. Consumers report that sales pitches often stress just how hard their timeshare will be to sell on their own.
"Once they get your phone number, they're calling constantly," Allison said. He can get up to eight calls a week relating to timeshares, as well as exit strategies.
Often, the timeshare exit pitches might involve a free dinner or lunch to entice someone to a no-obligation seminar.
The Allisons attended one such seminar at a Troy hotel in May 2017. Part of the presentation included projections that maintenance costs would be going up 10% to 20% a year in the future.
"It was like 'You're going to be burdened with these tremendous bills in retirement, and we can get you out of it,' " Allison said.
The couple feared what would happen if their son, 49, and their daughter, age 34, inherited the timeshare properties and were forced to pay those annual fees, as well.
"We decided that rather than burden the kids with it we'd dispose of them," he said.
They didn't want to burden their kids
The couple spent $14,000 – including putting $10,000 on a new credit card that offered 0% for a limited time. The expense included signing up for the no-title Florida Vacation Villas Club, which the couple plans to use and has minimal annual fees. And there were added costs associated with getting out of the three timeshares.
The BBB said many consumers who attend some timeshare exit seminars have complained that they ended up buying into a new timeshare and spent money to get out of old timeshares. In the end, the consumers said, they still were stuck paying maintenance fees on the old timeshares, and they had a new one to boot.
Allison, who lives in Farmington Hills, said he's not concerned about the new relationship with Vacation Villas. But he does want to unload that third timeshare to get rid of maintenance costs.
Allison said their annual maintenance bills were hitting more than $3,300 for the three timeshares. Serious health issues, limited time for travel and other worries led the couple to think it was time to get out of their timeshares.
"We used them through the years and enjoyed them thoroughly," Allison said. "But we're on Social Security now, and I didn't need another bill of $3,300, so it was time to make some changes."
Complaints on the rise
The Better Business Bureau said that consumer complaints against Missouri-based timeshare exit companies have exploded.
Timeshare owners across the country have filed more than 700 complaints with the BBB against Missouri timeshare relief companies since January 2016, according to an extensive study by the Better Business Bureau of Eastern & Southwest Missouri & Southern Illinois.
The BBB said two businesses headed by Scroggs account for more than $670,000 in reported losses.
Scroggs told the Free Press on Wednesday that he is working with every consumer who has filed a complaint with the BBB. He said the company is not seeking any new clients until resolutions are reached.
Scroggs, who said he worked 14 years in the timeshare industry, said exit companies exist because the resorts make it very difficult for clients to end their timeshare relationships.
Yet the BBB and others are raising red flags about dealing with timeshare exit businesses.
"The St. Louis-based BBB has received complaints all over the country from people who claim they didn’t receive the services they were promised within a certain amount of time," said Laura Blankenship, director of marketing for the Better Business Bureau Serving Eastern Michigan in Southfield.
Consumers said the timeshare-exit companies reached out to them and made the retirees and others believe that the exit company was the best way to help them, she said.
States with the most complaints are California, Missouri, Illinois, Florida and North Carolina.
In April, the American Resort Development Association-Resort Owners' Coalition, which represents more than 1.5 million timeshare owners, once again warned consumers about third-party exit companies. The group is the Washington, D.C.‐based professional association representing the vacation ownership and resort development industries.
The alert took place after a major timeshare exit firm, American Resource Management Group – which was doing business as Resort Release – filed for bankruptcy in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Florida.
Best bet: Always contact your timeshare developer or resort management company as your first source of information regarding exit options, according to the coalition.
While robocalls are exploding, good luck trying to get some third-party exit companies on the phone. Vacation Consulting Services and the Transfer Group do not let consumers leave a message when you call their Missouri office. Instead, you must book a 10-minute appointment online, and the appointment could take two days to get.
Scroggs said Wednesday that the online appointment system is working better to manage concerns of clients.
'We'll eventually get out'
Allison said he's making sure to upload the maintenance bills he has continued to pay in 2019 – which he wants the third-party exit company to refund.
He warns other consumers that they should watch out for outfits that aren't reputable.
The seminars can be slick. Allison showed us a 30-page contract that was completed on the spot at the exit-company's seminar.
"They put a good presentation on," Allison said, saying that perhaps a dozen tables were set up in a conference room at the local hotel.
Ultimately, after that surprise visit last summer to the offices of Vacation Consulting Services, some resolution was reached. It was more than a year after the initial seminar.
And the couple says they eventually did receive nearly $3,950 back. The first check, Allison said, bounced but another was sent later. Allison views that money as a refund of maintenance and other fees.
Allison still filed a complaint with the BBB in Missouri in December 2018 because the third-party exit company had not disposed of the third timeshare in New Jersey – a timeshare that's costing the couple roughly $1,284 a year in maintenance fees now.
"We'll eventually get out of it," Allison said. He's not giving up at all.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: He wanted out of his timeshares — he never predicted the nightmare ahead