The Clampdown on Illegal Holiday ‘Bait & Switch’ Businesses Gathers Pace
The law is catching up with those involved in ‘Leisure Credits’ and Bogus Holiday Club scams, with arrests, prison sentences and heavy financial penalties taking place.
Way back in 2013, the UK European Consumer Centre warned of a new holiday product that was set up to intentionally avoid the legislation that protects consumers in the timeshare sector. They described how holidaymakers were being promised holiday club memberships or discounts for years to come on future accommodation bookings, as well as other leisure products such as spa days, or the use of sports facilities and were being typically being charged up to £15,000 to sign up.
What was not made clear at the time was the ‘double-scam’ involved – the targeting of timeshare owners, lured in with false offers of anything from a part-exchange for their timeshare to purported legal services to terminate timeshare contracts and claim monies back.
The news that father and daughter Dominic and Stephanie O’Reilly, who ran the substantial EZE Group scam have been ordered to pay back over £400,000 has recently highlighted the way that legal and claims services formed an integral part of the scams taking place. The O’Reillys had previously been convicted and given prison sentences and now UK National Trading Standards has had court orders imposed on them to claw back the illegal profits they made
The Bait & Switch
As described by Trading Standards, EZE typically targeted timeshare owners, persuading them to sign up “for services they did not want or need, including services to dispose of timeshares and a ‘club membership’ offering discounts that didn’t really exist. The presentations made false claims that victims’ existing timeshares would last in perpetuity and that huge debts would be passed onto their children unless consumers signed up to EZE timeshare disposal services.“ Other businesses were also involved to help convince consumers of the supposed ‘benefits’, including closely connected travel and legal services companies. In the case of EZE, consumers were passed on to the likes of ‘Everywhere Travel’ – controlled by Stephanie O’Reilly and Praetorian Legal – a regulated Claims Management Company (CMC) that Dominic O’Reilly served as a director of before falling out with owner Gary Smith – the latter who also served as the EZE ‘Legal & Compliance Director’ and who used another company, LCM Law to pursue EZE victims for payments and threaten legal actions against consumers who publicly complained about EZE.
Millions lost by consumers in similar circumstances
Although the most high profile of these scams (EZE were previously sponsors of Birmingham City FC and an ‘Official Club Partner of Celtic FC), they are in fact one of many involved in such deceptions, and huge losses have been suffered by consumers, many of whom are elderly.
In 2012, Seven connected businesses known collectively as the Club Class network were closed down by the UK government. Here, the UK Insolvency Service stated “timeshare owners were encouraged to sign up to a group action against the timeshare industry to be conducted by an organisation called International Timeshare Refund Action (ITRA). The court heard that instead, the ITRA presentation became a Club Class presentation in which consumers were informed there was a “one-off” opportunity for them to irrevocably relinquish their timeshares in part-payment for the substantial cost of the Club Class membership, which ranged from around £7,000 to £15,000. Consumers were unaware in advance that this was the true purpose of the meeting.” In this case, the ‘legal services provider, ITRA, continued to trade until 2019, when a High Court order closed them down after the business failed to pay refunds to consumers as ordered by the courts. Andrew Cooper, a director of two of the businesses shut down in 2012 and a ‘consultant’ to ITRA is now a director of ‘ECC’ – European Consumer Claims, which has admitted in the past that they “had an agreement in place with International Timeshare Refund Action (ITRA) to introduce clients to ITRA’s consultation centres throughout the UK so that they could contract ITRA services. They further explained that “ITRA and ECC had the same shareholders and were therefore legally associated companies”
And in 2017, police raided the UK and Spanish offices of a business called Monster Travel, making several arrests. Monster had also claimed to be providing this mix of Leisure Credits and timeshare disposal services. The owner of Monster, Mark Rowe, who is on police bail pending the outcome of investigations, subsequently started up other similar operations where he again connected ‘holiday discount clubs’ to timeshare legal services -with the latter trading as ‘ABC Legal / ABC Lawyers / Timeshare.Lawyer. Rowe has since closed these too – with Andrew Cooper’s ECC saying they have bought the ‘assets’ – the customer databases and websites etc. (but not the actual businesses).
And in 2018, Francis ‘Frank’ Madden was sentenced to 40 months in prison after a series of offences involving bogus holiday clubs stretching back years. He too often targeted timeshare owners – particularly elderly ones, with promises of timeshare disposal. Madden was also ordered to hand over personal assets of £20,000 in 2019.
Investigations into much of the above and other significant, similar cases is continuing. KwikChex estimates that over £100 million of consumer detriment has taken place related to such scams.
Of course, there are genuine complaints that may be brought by consumers. In many instances, these may be addressed and resolutions reached directly with the timeshare company – or by using recognised mediation services.
Where formal actions are considered necessary, the experience of thousands of consumers affected by situations such as those above demonstrates there is a need for extreme caution and due diligence. Some claims may for example be made free of charge by consumers and free advice on this is provided by organisations such as Citizens Advice.
KwikChex, a consumer protection award-winning business which manages the Timeshare Task Force and is accredited by UK Trading Standards has provided evidence and witness statements in these matters and is available to provide free assistance to any consumers that have been affected or have concerns or simply want to carry out checks.