St. Louis, MO (Feb. 4, 2016) — One year after Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster sued to have a Branson, Mo., travel club shut down for allegedly defrauding customers, the business again is selling memberships in the St. Louis area – this time under a new name, Better Business Bureau (BBB) warns.
BBB advises consumers to exercise caution if approached by representatives of Destinations, which lists an address of 3265 Falls Parkway in Branson. Destinations is wholly owned by VSA Holdings Inc., of Branson, one of several businesses sued by Koster in December 2014 over allegations it violated the state’s Merchandising Practices Act. The suit, pending in Taney County Circuit Court in Forsyth, accuses VSA Holdings and related businesses of continuing to cheat consumers by exaggerating discounts available through the club.
The suit asks that the court permanently bar the company from doing business in the state and order it to pay full restitution to all customers who lost money.
BBB first learned of the most recent Destinations sales seminars about two weeks ago after several St. Louis area residents reported receiving mail solicitations from a company called VSA Asset Management of Branson. In the solicitation, VSA Asset Management lists the same Branson address as Destinations, but the envelope containing the solicitation identifies it as an “official document” with a return address of 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Ste. 190 #302, Washington, D.C.
Vacation Services of America, another name used by VSA Holdings, has an “F” rating with BBB, the lowest possible, with more than 50 customer complaints.
Michelle Corey, BBB president and CEO, said Destinations’ business model appears very similar to the businesses that have faced legal action from Missouri law enforcement officials for years.
“From everything we have seen, the questionable marketing and misleading promises are no different under Destinations than they were under VSA,” Corey said. “By purchasing a membership with any of these companies, you are taking a gamble with your money.”
Records with the Missouri secretary of state list Brent J. Hedrick as the owner of Destinations and VSA Holdings. In addition to VSA Holdings, Vacation Services of America and VSA LLC, the 2014 lawsuit also names International Travel Solutions of Plantation and Orlando, Fla.; Thomas Wood of Orlando, Fla.; and Wood’s son, Denver Wood of Branson, as defendants. The suit describes the Woods as owners/operators of one or more of the businesses. Hedrick is listed in Florida state records as owner of International Travel.
The suit is not the first time the Missouri attorney general’s office has sued the Woods and their travel operations. In December 2006, a judge in Taney County ruled that the Woods and their businesses had violated an earlier court order, Denver Woodand ordered them to pay a penalty of nearly $2 million. At that time, the judge in the case said the defendants have “continued to abuse and take advantage of consumers – primarily elderly and credulous tourists.”
In a separate case in 2011, a federal judge in Springfield, Mo., sentenced the Woods to prison after the men pleaded guilty to income tax evasion in connection with their travel business. Thomas Wood got 18 months and Denver Wood got two years, both without parole. The court also ordered that the men pay a total of more than $200,000 in restitution.
In recent years, consumers from across the nation have filed BBB complaints against Vacation Services of America and International Travel Solutions.
A Creve Coeur couple, in their 80s, told BBB they joined Vacation Services of America and International Travel Solutions in 2015. The couple said they paid nearly $7,400 in membership fees during a sales seminar last February at the Sheraton Clayton Plaza Hotel, after sales representatives promised them deeply discounted travel services. The wife said when they tried to use the service, no one with the company returned their phone calls. When they finally got through, she said, the company bounced them from one representative to another. They said they were never able to use the club and have been unable to get a refund. “If we had thought it over thoroughly, we probably would not have done it,” the wife said. “I would not recommend it to anyone.”
A man from St. Charles said he and his wife attended an International Travel Solutions/VSA sales meeting in February 2014 in St. Charles and ultimately spent $3,300 to join the travel club. A veteran of the Vietnam War, the man said he and his wife had hoped to get a deal on travel arrangements for a veterans reunion trip to Oregon, but they were unable to get the company to do anything.
He said he was finally able to get a refund, but only after threatening to file a complaint with the attorney general’s office. His advice to others considering the travel club: “Don’t even go near it.”
A Washington University professor who attended a 2014 VSA seminar on the promise of free airline vouchers said he soon learned that the vouchers “had so many strings attached” that they were virtually worthless. “I thought it was extremely disingenuous,” he said.
Last month, a marketing company hired to solicit potential customers on behalf of Destinations, mailed out 277,000 “Authentic Gift Delivery Notifications,” saying recipients were finalists in a giveaway for a 2016 Toyota Prius. Other possible prizes were an Apple iPad, a 51-inch plasma TV or a seven-night Royal Caribbean cruise with airfare for two, according to the solicitation.
In a follow-up phone call, representatives told recipients they would have to attend a 90-minute vacation club seminar to receive their prizes. A call center representative told an investigator the seminars would be held at the Sheraton Clayton in late January and at an Embassy Suites hotel in St. Charles Feb. 3-6.
A man from Kirkwood who attended the Jan. 21 Clayton seminar said representatives of Destinations lowered the cost of membership from nearly $14,000, to $6,000, to $2,000 to entice him to join.
“They were quoting 50 percent off,” he said of the travel deals. The man’s friend, who also attended the meeting, said of one salesman: “He did everything he possibly could do to get us to join. He was pushing as far as he could.”
A BBB investigator who arrived for the January 21 seminar was asked to leave by a Destinations representative who identified himself as Robert Stilwell. Stilwell initially identified Denver Wood as an owner of the company, but moments later said the owner was Hedrick and denied that Wood had any current involvement with the business. A desk clerk at the hotel said Denver Wood had booked several of the hotel rooms for the conference.
BBB has been unable to reach Hedrick, Denver Wood or other company officials.
Michael D. Textor, an attorney representing Destinations, said in an email to BBB that “neither the BBB nor consumers should be concerned about the sales activities of Destinations.” He said the company “is willing to stack its customer service record against any company in any industry.” He said the company has a customer satisfaction rating of over 99.96 percent.
He called Koster’s suit “alleged and unsubstantiated claims.” Textor said the claims should not be confused with “findings of wrongdoing.”
Textor said the company’s current marketing campaign is not misleading. He said that while the Woods were part owners of VSA Holdings several years ago, “neither maintains an ownership interest or management role with the company.”
BBB offers the following tips to consumers looking to enroll in a travel club:
- Research the business and owners carefully before signing a contract or paying any money. Check the company’s BBB Business Review at www.bbb.org or by calling 314-645-3300.
- Be wary of incredible deals or free tickets, prizes or memberships. Giveaway offers usually come with a catch.
- Before agreeing to anything or giving out your credit card information, ask for detailed written information about the cost of the vacation, including all items and fees, as well as membership cost. Read the contract carefully.
- Ask about your right to cancel and get the cancellation policy in writing.
- There are a number of well-known travel sites that provide discounted rates for airfare, hotels and rental cars, without requiring you to pay for membership. Do the math, and see if it is actually a better deal to plan and book trips yourself.
- If you entered into the sales agreement at a place that is not the company’s regular place of business, such as a hotel meeting room, the three-day right of cancellation may apply. If it does, you may have the right to cancel the contract within 72-hours for a full refund.
- In addition, the company is required by law to inform you at the time of sale — both verbally and in writing — that you have the right to cancel the contract within 72 hours.
- If you do decide to purchase a trip or travel membership through this kind of company, use your credit card to pay for it. This way, if you believe you were scammed, you can dispute the charges through your credit card company.
Contacts (News Media Only): Michelle L. Corey, President and CEO, (314) 645-0606, [email protected]; Chris Thetford, Vice President-Communications, (314) 584-6743 or (314) 681-4719 (cell), [email protected]; or Bill Smith, Investigator, (314) 584-6727, [email protected]
Columbia media contact: Sean Spence, Columbia Regional Director, (573) 886-8965, [email protected]
Cape Girardeau media contact: Joey Keys, Cape Girardeau Regional Director, (573) 803-3191, [email protected]
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PRESS RELEASE SOURCE: BBB of St. Louis, MO