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Court Shuts Down Vacation Scheme

May 29, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A month after Curtis Sunderlin filled out a card for a prize drawing outside a local nightclub, he received a call telling him he had won a vacation.

For only $598, the Indianapolis resident was told, he would have a seven-day trip to Florida for two people, including a cruise to the Bahamas.

``If it was a random solicitor saying you won something, I would have said ’Yeah, right,‴ said Sunderlin, 28. ``But since I was there and put in for the drawing, I thought it was legit.″

He paid by giving his credit card number over the phone.

But when the brochures arrived, the so-called luxury resorts he had been promised looked ``worse than a Melrose Place set-up,″ Sunderlin said, and when he tried to cancel his trip, he was told there was no refund.

Sunderlin was among thousands of consumers lured with promises of discount luxury vacations by a marketing and tour scam, according to a complaint filed by the Federal Trade Commission. A federal court shut down the operation after the commission accused the businesses of bilking consumers out of hundreds of dollars each.

In an order unsealed Thursday, the U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh froze the assets of Commonwealth Marketing Group Inc. and Great Escape Vacations & Tours, both of Hopwood, Pa., and appointed a receiver to oversee them.

The court action followed a complaint by the FTC alleging that the businesses tricked consumers nationwide into giving their credit card numbers to a telemarketer, promising that in return they would get a vacation for free or at minimal expense.

But the vacations were far less luxurious than promised and the costs far more than what buyers were told, according to the commission.

``Thousands of consumers who thought they had ‘qualified’ for a discount vacation paid hundreds of dollars to collect. But they didn’t get what they paid for,″ said Jodie Bernstein, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.

The FTC also alleged that the companies denied consumers refunds, even though the reservation vouchers contained provisions allowing for returns for a certain numbers of days.

Sunderlin said when he tried to get a refund within 10 days, a representative told him the company did not provide refunds. After pursuing the matter with the Better Business Bureau, he eventually got his money back.

A call to Great Escape Vacations & Tours seeking comment was switched among three people Thursday, including one who said he was a manager, but none would comment or give their names. There was no response to telephone calls made to Commonwealth Marketing Group.

The FTC alleged that after providing credit card information, consumers were transferred to another department, which told them they would have to pay hundred of dollars for ``port processing fees.″ Later, the consumers learned that the promised ``luxury cruise″ was a five-hour ferry ride to the Bahamas and back, the complaint said.

Patricia Mimms of Methuen, Mass., said she knew it was too good to be true when the company called her, promising a nine-day vacation with stops in Orlando, Fla., the Bahamas and Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., for only $598 for her and her husband. The company also said free trips to other locales would follow.

She asked several company representatives ``what do we have to do?″ suspecting that the package may require them to join a time-share.

``But they all kept saying the only thing you are required to do is enjoy yourself,″ Mimms said. After repeated calls, she discovered her suspicions were right: She and her husband would have to attend a time-share meeting as part of their ``vacation.″

The Mimms also asked for a refund and eventually got $498 returned.

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