Couple conned out of $6,500
Bogus time-share deal a reminder to be careful on spring vacations
Ken and Jane Shovick, owners of the Family Barber Shop, have lived in Steamboat for many years. Like many residents who have had their share of winter weather, come April 1, the couple enjoy spring breaking in Cozumel, Mexico — a sunny place where they can warm their spirits after the long winter — until now. After a trip last year, the couple was scammed out of more than $6,500. A fter a planned trip in May they’re never going back.
Three years ago, the Shovicks booked a spring break vacation to Cozumel and fell in love with the place. The stayed at the Sol Caribe Resort, a beautiful high-rise hotel, right on the ocean. The next year, in the spring of 1999, the couple went back to the vacation destination they had enjoyed the year before, and although they booked that trip at a different resort, they decided to go to the Sol Caribe and look into the possibility of purchasing a time share.
“We know a lot of people who own time shares in Cozumel,” Jane said. “This place seemed legit. Americans were selling the time shares and there was an American name on the time share company: Century 21.”
Century 21 Tri-Time shares, out of Virginia, is the company that was represented to the Shovicks as selling time share space and the Shovicks never got the impression the company wasn’t on the up and up.
“We authorized our Visa card be charged $5,680,” Ken said. “And after a person who said she was a Mexican attorney drew up some official papers, we signed.”
Little did the Shovicks know, that that would be the last time they would visit the time share they had just purchased.
Once back in Steamboat, the Shovicks’ credit card receipt came in the mail. It had been charged for $6,196 –$516 more than was authorized. The Shovicks called the resort to complain and a representative convinced them to take the cost of two maintenance fees in exchange for the overcharge.
Then they received a bill from a California company asking for $314 in maintenance fees that had gone unpaid, unknowingly. The couple mailed in the money.
Finally, a year later, the Shovicks planned their first vacation to their new time share, but there was one problem, no one from Sol Caribe would confirm their reservations.
“We had to call back on four different occasions, and then we got the bad news,” Jane said.
Sol Caribe was in bankruptcy and the couple was told that all time shares purchased through the company would not be honored. The Shovicks had already sunk $6,510 into their dream vacation spot, thousands of dollars they don’t plan to ever see again.
“We’re devastated and the thing that really hurts is these are Americans scamming other Americans,” Jane said, “$6,510 is a lot of money, that’s a lot of haircuts. This sort of thing makes you feel so stupid and violated, but we found out that so many other people have fallen for the exact same scam.”
After the Shovicks found out the company was in bankruptcy, they filed a letter of complaint about Century 21 Tri-time shares with the state of Virginia. But, a spokeswoman from Century 21 Tri-time shares in Virginia said the company has never been involved in selling time shares at the Sol Caribe Resort, and furthermore, she didn’t know the American who sold the Shovicks their time share.
“Century 21 has it’s own attorneys looking into this,” said Dolores Hammer, Century 21director of customer support. “We’ve filed a complaint with the Mexican consulate. These people were misrepresenting themselves as employees of our company and they were probably employees of the hotel.”
Hammer said Century 21 Tri-time shares was acting only as an exchange service for clients who own time shares at the Sol Caribe resort. If a customer wanted to exchange their week in Cozumel for a week in another resort area, the company would take care of it for them for a $95 fee, Hammer said.
“We work with over 1,000 resorts but we were not selling time shares at Sol Caribe,” she said. “We don’t have an on-site office there and we don’t have any employees there. Our company is a victim in this as well.”
Hammer said the Sol Caribe resort filed bankruptcy to avoid being responsible for time-share funds it had taken in while in operation. The new owner of the hotel, Royal Holiday Club, is aware of the Sol Caribe customers and may be willing to honor their purchases.
“The problem is, I’ve been told by an attorney that when a time share declares bankruptcy in Mexico, the owners lose everything. The new owners of the time share are not responsible to honor any prior contracts,” Hammer said.
Gary Hyde, regional vice president of operations for Sunterra Resorts, said the scam that took the Shovicks’ money is very unfortunate.
“Time-sharing outside this country is very difficult. Century 21 is a very reputable company but whether this resort is reputable is another story,” he said.
Hyde said there are a number of things people can look for when purchasing time shares in a foreign country, but most importantly, use common sense.
“A week at a prime resort destination should run about $15,000 to $20,000. If the deal sound too good, it probably is,” he said.
Companies such as Hilton, Disney, Hyatt and Sunterra operate time shares in Mexico and Hyde said a buyer can purchase the time share from within the United States.
“The U.S. has lots of restrictions on time shares and the buyer is well protected. If a company declares bankruptcy in the U.S., the time share owner still has the right to use the property,” he said.
Hyde also warned against the risk of buying from a single-site developer, a company that only owns one piece of property.
“Stick with reputable companies. Buyer beware and buy a name brand,” he said.
In addition to price checking, knowing the company and checking the developer, Hyde wanted to remind people that when they buy a time share in Mexico, they are not really buying property.
“In Mexico, the government can seize the property at any time. That’s the risk you run in buying property there — you don’t own it,” he said. “People are leasing property in Mexico on a 99-year lease. They don’t actually get a deed.”
The Shovicks have received numerous e-mails from other Americans who fell victim to the Sol Caribe Resort time share scam, and through these e-mails they discovered that the hotel has changed names and has gone bankrupt four times.
“Some people have e-mailed us that they have lost up to $20,000 with this resort,” Jane said. “Many of them have banded together and hired an attorney to represent the group. But, we’re not throwing any more money at this. We’re just going to cut our losses. We’ve discovered that there’s about 2,900 people who have nothing to show for their down payments of $3,000 to $15,000.”
A Cozumel newspaper reported that an estimated 4,000 people have been defrauded and $200 million has been obtained through illegal methods by the owners of Sol Caribe.
Tammy Brents, a travel agent from Texas, sent an e-mail to the Shovicks that said: “This is a racket in my opinion. I have dealt with this property for more than 12 years and have been disgusted and completely turned off by their misrepresentation. I no longer offer the Sol Caribe to clients. All wholesalers and… travel agents should be aware and make it a point to terminate their relationship with this hotel.”
Linda Jeter of Texas said she also was defrauded by Sol Caribe.
“We were scammed when we bought a time share at this resort. We received a letter informing us they were bankrupt and our contract was null and void. To add fuel to the fire, the new operators are now selling time shares while not honoring our contracts nor advance paid reservations. They are showing the same wonderful room they showed us,” she said. “I urge you not to stay at this hotel. They are very persuasive and the food and amenities are great.”
Hyde warned of the dangers of getting sucked into the time share sales pitches while on vacation in Mexico.
“These are very high pressure salespeople,” he said. “They put on a 90-minute presentation and get people to spend $15,000 or $20,000. The web in a case like this can be long and tangled.”The Shovicks will return to Mexico one last time this spring because they promised their daughter they would treat her to a vacation. But they won’t visit the former Sol Caribe hotel while there — they want to forget about the whole situation.
“There are a lot of people from Steamboat who go to Cozumel every year,” Ken said. “They should know what’s going on down there. We never got the impression we were being scammed.”
— To reach Bryna Larsen call 871-4205 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
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