Beware of this giveaway gimmick that just keeps returning

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Posted: Saturday, May 11, 2013 12:00 am

If you've been selected to receive two free round-trip airline tickets to anywhere in the United States, along with free hotel stays, you might want to think twice before calling the number on the postcard to claim your prize.

The offer may include the name American Airlines or US Airlines, but you can be sure that American Airlines has no connection with this offer and US Airlines can't help, either, because there's no such company.

These mailings are part of a regular gimmick the BBB has warned about before. Unfortunately, it never seems to go away.

The mailings come from travel promotion outfits, many of whom carry very poor ratings with the BBB. I recently called to try to figure out how to actually get the free flights or hotel stays, and I was informed that a firm named Victory Travel Group has opened a new office in Bellevue. This promotion was being offered, I was told, as a way of helping folks get to know them a little better.

Darcy, the friendly woman with whom I spoke, told me if I fulfilled their criteria I would get free airline tickets and also three free nights at any Marriott or Marriott-owned property in the world. The caveats were that I had to be married and between the ages of 35 and 70, either working or retired with a household income of between $30,000 and $70,000.

All I had to do, Darcy said, was visit the new Victory Travel office in Bellevue with my wife and attend a 90-minute program on their products and services, then I could walk away with my free stuff.

She set up an appointment for me and gave me the address of a Holiday Inn Express. I thought that seemed to be an unusual place to open an office, but Darcy assured me that the hotel was just to accommodate these meetings and that the Victory Travel Group office was actually just around the corner, even though I happen to know the only thing around any corners of the Holiday Inn Express on South 15th in Bellevue is a big empty field.

Darcy, while friendly, was blatantly dishonest when she said Victory Travel has established an office in Bellevue. In fact, the group of people representing Victory Travel will stay only a short time in Bellevue, making presentations to people using well-established strategies to get them to purchase a membership to a travel club.

Those who sit through the presentation are “rewarded” with a package that makes it possible to (hopefully) eventually (maybe) claim airline tickets that have questionable value due to absurd restrictions and a nearly insurmountable set of limitations.

This week, a BBB investigator and I attended the presentation Darcy scheduled. We registered and confirmed we had identification and a major credit card in our possession, even though we were there only to collect our free goodies.

In a small conference room, a presenter informed us that they were the marketing company for Victory Travel Group and that we were about to be blessed with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that was just on the edge of too good to be true, and he shared many tender memories from trips he and his family have been able to take at extraordinary discounts — all thanks to his membership in the same travel club the 10 or so couples in the room might be lucky enough to join.

He was mesmerizing, but in the end, most folks snapped out of it when he finally delivered the bottom line — a one-time fee of $9,470 plus a $399 processing fee and first year's dues of $199. As soon as he finished his pitch, our tables were swarmed by closers, who are folks trained specifically to get the deals done. Scott, at our table, was clearly inexperienced and ill-prepared for our questions.

Us: Who owns the company?

Scott: Stevie Wunder, I think.

Us: Can you please further explain how to use this buyer's club that's included for our $9,400?

Scott: I don't know, for sure, how that works.

Us: How long has the company been in existence?

Scott: Since 1996, I think.

Us: That's interesting, because the BBB only has a file opened on this company since March of this year.

Scott: I'm going to go get someone else to talk with you now.

During the presentation, we were assured that their group had relationships with Sam's Club, Gap, Costco, Harley-Davidson, Bed Bath & Beyond, SeaWorld, Pizza Hut and countless others and that when we shopped at these places we'd get discounts as high as 60 percent as members.

Scott's replacement was just slightly more informed and offered a difficult-to-understand explanation of how the buyer's club worked.

Us: Can you demonstrate the simple process we will have access to as members?

Scott's replacement: I can't because, um, my computer is old.

Scott's replacement did come prepared to deal, though, and told the BBB investigator and me that if we bought the membership at that moment he would shave $3,000 off the price. However, that price was good only right now — if we left the property without purchasing the membership, he could no longer grant us that bargain.

Us: We need to sleep on it and do a little research. Can we have until the morning to buy the membership?

Scott's replacement: I'm happy to sell it to you for $9,400 anytime, but the deal for $6,000 is now or never.

We thanked him for his time and asked for our free airline tickets and the hotel deal we were promised before we came. We were handed the forms we would need to claim our “prize,” which is being offered by a Florida company, Millennium Travel, which has an F rating with the BBB and by coincidence resides at the same location as Darcy, the friendly gal who set up our appointment and lied about Victory's Bellevue office.

As it turns out, the free airline tickets that are used to lure people to the slick presentation aren't so easy to get. The instructions on the Millennium claim form require that each person submit a $50 deposit, and consumer complaints received by the BBB regarding this “free” offer include frustrations about restrictions involved with the free airline tickets.

One consumer alleges that he was told that he wouldn't be able to use his free voucher on Christmas, New Year's Day, etc., but he then found out he could not fly on the seven days before or after those holidays — which means something like 140 days are off-limits just on that restriction alone.

Further, he can depart only on a Monday or a Tuesday and must send a $50 certified check for each person to qualify. Within 21 days of receiving the voucher, he must choose three dates to travel and there must be at least 45 days between each choice.

The consumer further alleges that departure times must be around 3 p.m. or 9 p.m. and return times must be around 6 a.m. and 1 p.m.

Got all that? Me, neither.

That is a load of restrictions, to be sure.

I took a call from an Omaha woman just the other day who attended a similar presentation in Lincoln this past winter. She and her husband ended up buying a membership for just over $5,000.

Jim Hegarty is president of the Better Business Bureau representing Nebraska and southwest Iowa. To contact him, email jhegarty@bbbnebraska.org or call 402-898-8520.

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