CT Watchdog: Hard sell traps couple who thought they knew better

Imagine getting a postcard announcing that you and your husband have won two free flights from Delta, but you end up shelling out $5,300 instead for nothing?

That is what happened to James and Laurie Escudero of Granby, who got sucked into a high-pressure presentation during which they ended up putting $1,000 down and financing $4,300. And what were they going to get in return? Promises of huge savings on vacations.

What happened to the Escuderos is not unusual. Every day, scores of Connecticut residents receive emails, letters or phone calls telling them that they are the lucky winners of dinner, flights, cruises, hotel stays or gift certificates.

And all they have to do is attend a 90-minute presentation that usually includes a free meal. They are not required to buy anything, just listen for 90 minutes to salesmen or saleswomen who could talk a fox out of its fur.

Across the country, thousands of people each year end up getting hooked, spending thousands of dollars each for time shares, furniture discount clubs (Direct Buy), and the worst - travel clubs where they are promised savings of UP TO (think about what those two words really mean) 60 percent off. Some of these end up costing the "lucky winner" more than just one payment. Those purchasing time shares end up with having to pay hefty annual maintenance fees on condos they might one day have to pay someone to take off their hands.

In Connecticut, at least, when you sign up for one of these sales pitches, you have three business days to change your mind, cancel the contract and get your money back.

But as the Escuderos found out, that is not always easy.

The Escuderos thought they were smarter than the salesmen. They had attended other presentations and were able walk out at the end without turning over their debit cards.

They thought they were players. But looking back on it, they realize that they got played.

Their postcard offer came from Berkshire Concepts of Massachusetts.

"We made an appointment to go to the presentation and told each other that we wouldn't buy ANYTHING! We were going simply to get the free tickets, and were willing to put in the time to listen to what we knew would be a sales pitch (we figured it would be a time-share presentation). But, we had done this before, several times, and never bought into anything and were always rewarded at the end with whatever was promised in exchange for our time. We knew it was a numbers game, and the companies were happy to get the numbers in the seats to increase their chances of a sale," Laurie Escuderos told me.

Here is a small portion of her tale (she wrote a lengthy and detailed account that you can read in CtWatchdog.com)

"There were about 8 couples in the room. Most of the couples seemed really interested in the presentation, and answered questions excitedly, which, in turn, increased our own excitement in what we were seeing. (Now I wonder if there were shills in the audience, especially with the closing rate I'll share with you shortly.)

"The salesmen were very slick, but subtly so, using phrases like 'isn't time with your family worth more to you than anything?' and 'what wouldn't you give to spend more time with your loved ones?' They showed us beautiful trips, like cruises through the Greek Islands, Alaska, tours of Europe, even asking all of the women if they would like to take a trip and stay in a castle 'just like a princess.'"

She was so impressed with the presentation that she inquired about working for the company.

"After the presentation, one of the managers or salesmen came in and said he had an incentive for whoever could make a quick decision. He had two gold-colored coins in his hand, and said that the first two couples who signed up for the program would get a free upgrade from their regular program to their 'gold' program, but that he only had two, and we all had to decide fast!"

The two golden coins were quickly taken either by real customers or people working for the company. Then the pressure on our Granby couple increased.

The manager then "kept throwing in things for free, like upgrades for more travel and extras that he kept saying he 'never' gave anyone else. He immediately told me that I could work for them and asked if I wanted to start the next day (Saturday). I said yes, and he said he would call me that night to sort out the details."

They went home after signing up for the VIP Gold Plan and putting $1,000 on their debit cards, signing a contract to pay the rest in installments plus, of course, a handling fee.

Once they got home, their senses returned, and they realized that they had just gotten taken.

They sent a registered certified letter within the three business days demanding that the contract be canceled. But no one from the Massachusetts firm called them back. Since they did not use a credit card, they were unable to put a stop payment on the debit card.

That was when the couple contacted me to ask for help. After getting copies of all their documentation, I called the firm several times. Finally there was an answer from a man who refused to identify himself. After telling him why I called, he said "the owner" would get back to me in a few days and get the issue straightened out.

That was in February.

After waiting for a few weeks, I sent the Connecticut Consumer Protection Department a copy of the couple's complaint and their documents.

It took until late April, but after Connecticut officials leaned on the company, the deposit was returned and the contract was canceled. And a lesson was learned.



George Gombossy

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