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Time-share owners need to be wary of scams

Everyone's trying to cut corners. So this could be the summer that you submit to a sales pitch for a time share to get a free trip to the beach complete with a "couple's massage."

But what if you end up so relaxed that you're heading home as the actual owner of a time share? Can you unload it? The people doing the selling never talk about how tough these things are to market -- or how often somebody gets ripped off in the process.

But Bradley Luoma will tell you -- complete with a warning about how fast-talking con artists prey on people who lost a job and would desperately love to cut their expenses by dumping their time shares.

"If I could go back in time, I could kick my butt for doing this," he said.

Luoma, 44, of Harper Woods, Mich., said he and wife Monica are out $2,800, and they still own a time share they have never used in Nuevo Vallarta, Mexico.

They bought it for about $25,000 three years ago after celebrating an anniversary with a "free" trip that included a couple's massage and marlin fishing -- and a sales pitch.

"Unfortunately, it was a spur-of-the-moment thing," Luoma said. "We never visited it."

In the recession that followed, the couple lost four jobs between them. So, when someone called with an offer of $20,000 for the time share, they listened.

"They specifically told us they had buyers ready to go," Luoma said. Naturally, the "buyers" needed money up front and Luoma shelled out the $2,800. There was no sale and Luoma has not gotten his money back, despite complaints to the Better Business Bureau and the attorneys general of Florida and Michigan.

Unfortunately, it's not an isolated story.

Time-share owners in Michigan and elsewhere report that they've received phone calls or e-mails out of the blue from salespeople who claim that they have a buyer. All you have to do is send cash in advance.

Some consumers swing at the pitch because they want the money -- and a chance to stop paying maintenance fees of $500 to $900 a year.

Florida's attorney general has warned that salespeople may claim: "Your time share is in a 'hot' area and we're overwhelmed with requests for buyers."

"Remember," the Florida Attorney General's Office warns, "the time-share market is not 'hot,' and it is unlikely that there is a buyer ready and willing."

Thanks to the credit crunch, time-share sales of $6.3 billion in 2009 were down 35 percent from 2008.

But the resale scams are soaring.

In Florida, 2,719 people complained to the Attorney General's Office about time-share resale issues in 2009. Through late May this year, another 2,972 complaints had been received.

"The noise has gotten a little louder in the last year and a half," admitted Howard Nusbaum, president and CEO of the American Resort Development Association, a trade group.

Nusbaum said scam artists may be targeting older seniors or others struggling with bills.

"In this economy," he said, "who doesn't want $25,000?"

But "no reputable reseller is going to ever ask you to give money upfront," Nusbaum said.

Tim Burns, public affairs director for the Better Business Bureau Serving Eastern Michigan, said the BBB has received several complaints on the issue.

He noted that companies such as Resorts Condo Management, Creative Vacation Solutions, Platinum Property Exchange and Premier Timeshare Solutions have earned "F" ratings with BBB for bad practices.

The firms, says the BBB, have convinced time-share owners that they had interested buyers but demanded thousands of dollars in upfront fees from the sellers.

No buyers ever appear.

Candy Sweeny, 56, of Grosse Pointe Farms, Mich., said she lost $3,000 to one group and $1,600 to another firm that each claimed to have buyers for her time share in Hilton Head, S.C.

"Well, it turns out they didn't," she said.

Sweeny and her husband paid $46,000 for their time share about five years ago and pay $1,800 a year in maintenance fees. She works as a landscape architect but saw her earnings drop about 30 percent or so last year and wanted to cut costs.

"We're not using it," she said of the time share. Unfortunately, despite promises, they're not selling it, either.

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