With the possible exception of mold, mice and in-laws, nothing is more difficult to get rid of than a timeshare.
Scammers have found steady revenue by telling prospective timeshare sellers they've found a buyer. All it takes, of course, is an upfront fee to connect seller with buyer and close the deal. So the seller pays the fees, up to $2,000, only to find out there's no buyer.
The Federal Trade Commission received more than 5,000 timeshare-resale complaints last year, an alarming increase from slightly more than 800 in 2009. Lincoln Bertaccini of Morris began to wonder if he, too, might have been a victim after being contacted last November by a Universal Timeshare representative.
Bertaccini, desperate to sell a timeshare at Wyndham Bonnet Creek in Orlando, Fla., agreed to pay $1,600 in commission fees after being told a buyer was willing to purchase it for $26,000 to $28,000.
"I never would have called them unless I got something in the mail from them," says Bertaccini.
Bertaccini says that, in early December, Universal Timeshare told him the buyer was trying to get a loan after Christmas. In early January, Bertaccini says, he called four times, finally being told the buyer was still working on the loan. The Universal Timeshare representative said she'd call back two days later. She never called.
Bertaccini called again, and again.
"As you can see," he told The Bottom Line in early April, "it is virtually impossible to speak to anyone and get some answers."
Universal Timeshare, which identifies itself as a Beaverton, Ore., business is, in fact, operated from the Dominican Republic. But the Oregon attorney general's office knows Universal Timeshare — it has received more than 100 complaints from consumers, most for failure to fulfill a contract or failure to deliver goods or services.
It also knows this:
"They have taken care of many complaints received by our office," says Tony Green, communications and policy director of the Oregon attorney general's office.
Bertaccini called TBL recently, apoplectic, with details of a conversation he just had with a Universal Timeshare representative who asked for more money. At least Bertaccini thought he had been asked for money. He was too upset to even remember precise details, though he remembered hanging up abruptly.
"If you own a timeshare, chances are you will hear from fraudsters pretending to be resellers, promising a ready buyer, top dollar or a quick sale," David Vladeck, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, told Tribune Media Services recently. "This is timeshare hot air. The more pressure you get to pay fees before your timeshare is sold, the more likely it's a scam."
Federal and state authorities are pushing back. Earlier this year, the FTC banned a telemarketing operation that deceived timeshare sellers. Twenty-two people in Illinois have been indicted for timeshare-resale fraud, the result of an FTC investigation.
In July, a new Florida law makes it a crime for timeshare resellers who deceive consumers with promise of a buyer. It also will require resellers to honor cancellation requests and offer refunds.
TBL, who had failed to reach someone at Universal Timeshares in multiple attempts over several weeks, finally spoke with Harry Hughes, who identified himself as the Universal Timeshare manager.
There's definitely a buyer?
Bertaccini says you asked for more money.
"No, we don't demand no more extra payment."
Do you know the sales price?
"Sure. His sales price is $27,600."
And if Bertaccini wants to pull out, Hughes says Universal Timeshare won't stop him.
"We did tell him that if he does not want us after this time, that he does not want us to conclude with the sale of his property," says Hughes, "that we will only be able to refund the amount that is left on his fee, the fee that has not been used. And that amount right now is $600."
The remaining $1,000, he says, covers the "legwork," the paperwork and the presentation of the property.
"That's how we operate, sir," says Hughes.
Wyndham, meanwhile, is being accused of deceptive practices by an Largo, Fla., lawyer representing 101 people who bought partial timeshares after being promised that if their investment didn't increase in value the company would buy it back. Now they're stuck with timeshares with no buyers and escalating annual maintenance fees that, for some, have reached $4,000.
It's a good time to get out.
"At the end of the month," says Hughes, "we should be able to tell exactly when it will be a done deal."
That's the date, May 31, Bertaccini has been waiting for.
Either Bertaccini will sell his timeshare or Universal Timeshare will be dealing with another formal complaint to the attorney general's office. TBL will follow this one until the end.