How would you like a ``free'' trip to Mexico? You might get one -- or something like it -- if you accept one of the many promotional gifts being used to sell vacation timeshares.
The problem with this goodie, says Ted Hobson, a lawyer in the Vermont attorney general's office, is that the trip is hardly free, and it's hardly a trip.
``This one includes air fare for one,'' Mr. Hobson says. ``But to get it, you have to buy a second ticket, and the second air fare equals the price of two tickets.''
If you go sign up for this come-on, he continues, you'll land in Mexico, all right, but about 70 miles from the nearest resort, and you have to figure out how to get anywhere. You pay for food, hotels, and travel, too.
Bogus trips are just one of the gimmicks still being used to promote and sell vacation timeshares, where people can spend from $2,000 to $20,000 and more to ``own'' a week or two of accommodation at a Colorado ski resort, Florida beach condo, or Vermont mountain lodge. Last year, timeshare sales reached an estimated $1.8 billion, according to the National Timeshare Council. This was up about $600 million from 1983.
Fortunately, those two years have also seen some positive developments that could help drive out some of the abusive methods used to sell timeshares. But there are still enough examples of abuse and criminal behavior to justify extreme caution before signing up.
The best-known of these abuses, of course, are the ``prizes'' of television sets, cameras, and jewelry which often turn out to be unheard-of brands or junk, and the high-pressure sales tactics.
One encouraging development, says Diane Skeltis, spokeswoman for the Council of Better Busines Bureaus, came about as the potential profits to be made from timeshares caught the attention of large corporations like Marriott Corporation, Walt Disney Productions, ITT Corporation, and US Home Corporation. This means timeshare properties are being developed and marketed by companies you'll be able to find later.
Marriott, for example, has one timeshare operating at Hilton Head, S.C., and another set to open this year near Disney World in Florida, said Edwin H. McMullen, executive vice-president of Marriott Ownership Resorts Inc.
A second positive change, Ms. Skeltis reports, is taking place at the state level, especially in states where timeshares have sprouted up most prolifically, including Florida, Hawaii, California, Colorado, and South Carolina.
``More and more states are regulating the timeshare business under real estate laws rather than securities laws,'' she says, so it is being watched by people who have experience with deeds and titles instead of stocks and bonds.
Also, 37 states have passed laws that bring some control over timeshare promotions and sales. The most common feature of these laws is a ``cooling off'' period, ranging from three to 10 days. This lets a customer cancel a timeshare contract without obligation, even if it has been signed. Some states also regulate the prizes and gifts, requiring promoters to tell the odds of walking out with the most expensive items.
Still, the presence of big corporations and tougher regulations has not prevented some people from trying their hand at timeshare con games. Last year, in fact, the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department won a conviction that led to a three-year prison term and a quarter-million-dollar restitution judgment against a man who sold nonexistent timeshares in Hawaii, Nevada, and Washington State, an FTC spokeswoman said.
So while there have been some signs of improvement in the timeshare business and tougher enforcement, there is still plenty of reason for people to be careful and to know some of the rules of the game before they play.
Some timeshare arrangements give you a deed to the property for whatever period you buy. Others do not have a deed, but give you the right to use the rooms or apartment during a specific period of time. If the salesman won't take the time to explain what the differences between these two arrangements are, so that you understand them completely, take your promotional prize -- for what it's worth -- and go home.
Also make sure that whatever the salesperson promises orally is in the written contract. Then read the contract to see if any written claims pose contradictions.
Be wary of a lot of talk about ``exchange'' privileges, where you can supposedly switch your January week in Colorado with a February week in Florida. They usually can't be guaranteed, and you may find that the only weeks available are at the least desirable times.
Look into the track record of the seller, developer, and management company. Visit the resort and see how well it's run, and talk to others who are staying there.
Call local Better Busines Bureaus, offices of state attorneys general, and consumer-protection agencies to see if there is any record of complaints.
Finally, write the Federal Trade Commission, Bureau of Consumer Protection, Office of Consumer Education, Sixth and Pennsylvania, NW, Washington, D.C 20580. Ask for ``Ten Timeshare Tips.'' It's free and will give you some ammunition to use the next time you get one of those post cards offering a TV or trip to hear a heavy sales pitch.