People don’t knowingly go into a building and ask to join a cult, one where they will spend loads of money and time, and will probably eventually leave much worse off financially and psychologically.
People don’t knowingly apply to get into timeshare ownership, eventually to withdraw and be much worse off financially and psychologically.
I fell for both in turn, because I had no insight into the methods of undue influence. After all, a timeshare is nothing like a cult is it, so why be wary?
What follows is a description of my timeshare experience, and I don’t think you’ll have too much difficulty seeing the parallels of timeshare selling and cult indoctrination. The common factor, of course, is undue influence.
During a holiday in Rhodes, my wife and I visited the Old Town. When we got off the bus, we were greeted by a very pretty, bubbly French girl with a clipboard. She asked us if we’d like to spend no more than 90 minutes giving our opinion on a new hotel. We were very relaxed and at a bit of a loose end, so we agreed to the deal whereby we would get a free taxi ride, drinks and a reward based on a scratch card. We won first prize, which might have been a video camera, a holiday or a sound system; we had to attend to find out which. She was over the moon at our winning the top prize and said she’d get a bonus for introducing us with the best win. How could we resist her?
When we arrived at their office, we were greeted by an equally charming girl, passed on to a third, and then given drinks of our choice. After a while this really cool, friendly guy came along and took over.
Over the next several hours (not 90 minutes), we were told all sorts of information in such a way as to be totally overloaded with background irrelevances, but given full-on attention and flattery in the process. Whilst we were completely under his control, in his environment, we both got the feeling he would make a great friend and that he would like to be our friend.
We were introduced to very happy, positive people whilst in the office, all regaling us with great holiday tales. It started to feel like some sort of exclusive club, only for those in the know, of course. We were repeatedly encouraged simply to listen to the facts and to keep an open mind.
It was explained, over and over again, that this was definitely NOT a timeshare, but a means of using timeshare apartments for holidays at a special price, without commitments. We were shown lovely images and told about the many wonderful places we would have access to, and they looked very impressive.
By the time the head guy came over to discuss costs, we were hungry and fatigued, but were pretty much sold on the idea until we heard his initial offer. He said he could see our reaction and dropped the price considerably, without argument, and added an extra week’s vacation because we were such nice people, and it was in his power to do that. He emphasised that we had to make a decision there and then, because there was no time to go through the information again, and anyway there was a Greek law forbidding taking a tourist from the streets more than once.
We agreed to spend a few grand on 6 weeks of luxury future accommodations of our choice. He said the only condition was we had to take the first week at one of their places, because this was stipulated by the Greek government.
By this point, we had forgotten that the original offer was simply to give an opinion on a new hotel; we were too distracted by what actually happened. Before we left, we had to do a brief write-up saying why we thought the purchase was so good.
The “gift” we won was a cheap portable CD radio cassette, not the video camera or holiday, but we were glad to finally take our free taxi back to our hotel, have something to eat at last, and puzzle over whether we had done the right thing, almost competing to convince each other it was a good deal.
The next year we took our vacation at their complex on Crete. We were told that it was an obligation to spend a couple of hours talking to our “rep”, since we had been given an extra week’s holiday. We hadn’t told about this but, hey, we were on holiday and feeling chilled and had plenty of time.
The rep was a very friendly guy, who offered attention and flattery and also chatted about his past, his daughter, and all sorts of unrelated topics, until we got the impression, just like before, that he would make a nice friend and would probably like to be our friend. Once we were on good terms, he confessed that the deal before was ok, but we wouldn’t get a high priority for choice, and the only way to get a better deal, for the many wonderful places he showed us, was to upgrade to a inexpensive and full timeshare. Basically we needed to spend more money to achieve the original vision, so, after many hours of information, and with hunger taking over, we agreed to spend a few more grand on the new deal. In this way the original “investment” would not be in vain, and we could choose any place, any time, to suit our needs.
As a result we were told, over free champagne, that we could have a free holiday (based on our new timeshare sale), next year at another of their sites in Crete. We then had to do another brief write-up about why we were so pleased with our purchase.
At this next resort in Crete, we were again informed that we had to have a “presentation” as a result of being given the free week. Unsurprised this time, we duly turned up and met a charming young lady who had already befriended us before the meeting. She showed great interest in us and gave us the feeling she would like to be an actual friend in the future.
Eventually, when we were fully relaxed and open, she confided that there was a much better system in place, using points, not weeks, and an alternative method for exchanging holidays, with super-cheap flights and many other special and exclusive deals. I won’t go into the many promises made, but suffice to say, it seemed to make sense. The new system would allow us to achieve the earlier vision much more efficiently, since ‘everyone is moving to the points system’, so we would be at a distinct disadvantage if we didn’t follow suit. After several hours of being overloaded with details and great visions (and also, again, being hungry), we were offered a special deal on a timeshare that had just become available – but wouldn’t be for long. So we decided to protect and enhance our original investment, and we shed several more grand. We were assured we would now be able to go anywhere at any time we wanted, and that this new deal would be all we needed from now on.
It took several weeks for the documents to arrive and my priority at the time turned to my Mum who was ill and soon afterwards passed away. We needed a holiday, and finally it was time to use our elite club membership to go somewhere great for a couple of weeks.
You are probably ahead of me at this point. Yes, the choice of places to stay was pitiful, very poorly rated and expensive in terms of points, and the nice places we had been shown, many times, were literally never available. There were no special deals on flights or any other exclusive offers available. Yet the cost had been considerable, and came with an annual charge that was out of all proportion.
At first I thought it must be me, somehow not using the system correctly, but the horrible, sickening realisation that this was a mega-scam slowly crept up on me. It took some time for me to fully accept the situation. That was when I started to search online for information and found many sorry tales of those who, like us, had been taken in by the selling techniques – the undue influence.
I read about people who had taken out huge loans, fallen unemployed, and even committed suicide. You never get your money back, because these companies are registered in places where there is no consumer protection. You can’t sell, because nobody wants to buy. Search for timeshares on online auction sites, and you’ll see what they are worth; mostly nothing. The only thing we bought were lies, so many lies.
So, in conclusion, this is why I believe the work of the Open Minds Foundation is so important. In our case, we could have saved thousands of pounds armed with the insights that awareness of undue influence (in its many guises) can bring. Not to mention the anguish and damage that many experience as a result of being unconsciously manipulated.
If you want to read the “best” training manual for timeshare selling (timeshare is now referred to as Vacation Ownership) I would recommend Rita M. Bruegger’s Vacation Ownership Sales Training. It’s a detailed, well organised and totally frightening account of deceit and manipulation and every question and objection you may raise in a presentation has a prepared answer.
What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about fraud that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!