Apparent Travel Scam Group Leaves Town Quickly
By Dave Franzman, Reporter
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - The Iowa Attorney General’s consumer protection office is investigating a travel club called “Scenic Valley Travel.” And that scam investigation apparently help prompt travel club organizers to quickly cancel seminars and leave the Cedar Rapids area.
The group had rented a conference room at a local hotel two weeks ago and told hotel managers they were planning to stay and conduct business until sometime in mid-December. But Bill Brauch, consumer protection division director at the Attorney General’s Office, said sales people decided to leave town after a call from a state investigator. The group left Thursday night.
The group, that also used the name A to Z Travel, apparently sent post cards to a number of people in the community offering a gift of roundtrip airfare, hotel and car rental for two. If a recipient was interested, they called a number to learn earning the prize meant attending a 90 minute seminar about a travel club membership.
Audra Larimer and her husband said they have attended time share presentations from time to time and know the drill. You spend some time listening to a sales pitch about a vacation property and earn a free dinner or prize of similar value. When Larimer got the post car from Scenic Valley Travel she expected the same thing. But it was a much different experience.
“When you said no to the first guy for $9,000, and six hundred in fees, they’d come back and say ‘oh we can make a sweeter deal How about seven grand and then five grand and how about three—can you do that?’”
Larimer didn’t spend any money and called the sales people some of the most aggressive she’d ever met.
Barbara Green, community relations representative for the Better Business Bureau, started hearing complaints about the sales tactics and began investigating. She said the company’s website claimed a Cedar Rapids address—but it was the address of the hotel hosting the seminars. Green said every phone number she saw on the website either went to voice mail or was a bogus number. The website itself was registered in Australia. Green said the pitch followed a predictable pattern.
“I get calls daily from people who think they’ve won a Mercedes of $2.5-million dollars. All you have to do is prepay the taxes or a fee. We always try to get them away from that kind of scam,” Green said.
But Green thought she could get quicker response in this case because the sales people were at a local hotel instead of an off shore phone line. She wonders is BBB pressure alerted the group it was time to move along. However, Brauch suspects more action came after the recent call from the Attorney General’s office investigator.
“We told them they were not complying with laws regarding registration as travel agents—also the door to door sales act. Every one of these hotel seminars is a door to door sale under Iowa law,” Brauch said.
Brauch said such companies must give customers a certain amount of time to back out of a contract and get a refund and that wasn’t happening. He said when the state investigator told the group they had to comply with Iowa law or leave they left.
Brauch said the consumer protection group started getting calls last month from people in Des Moines about the same apparent travel club scam. Some complaints concerned an inability to get refunds or other problems. He said the state can’t determine yet if anyone spending money with the group got anything of value. But he said at least one customer is in a dispute with a credit card company now about the inability to get a refund.
Larimer is just grateful she didn’t lose anything more than a little time attending the travel club seminar.
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