Consumers who enter to win prizes often open themselves up to high-pressure sales tactics that could drain their wallets.
The Federal Trade Commission reported an 84 percent increase in travel-related complaints within the last two years nationwide.
A hidden camera Call 6 investigation uncovered some of the sales tactics that convince unsuspecting consumers to say "yes."
"It's more heartache and trouble than it's worth," said Brittany Hogan, who entered to win a car while at a county fair and wound up signing up for a $10,000 vacation package.
Call 6 Investigator Kara Kenney
found that central Indiana residents have filed complaints with the Attorney General's Office and Better Business Bureau, claiming travel companies' tactics were unfair.
Hogan said that after she entered to win the car, she began receiving calls from SmarTravel, a wholesale vacation company with offices in Indianapolis, telling her that in order to receive a three-night cruise, including airfare, she had to attend a sales presentation.
"I said, 'I'll listen to what they have to say, say no and leave,'" Hogan said. "It didn't really work that way."
Kenney began receiving similar calls from SmarTravel after entering to win a Lexus at a mall.
"You have this three-night Royal Caribbean cruise waiting for you, and it does include round-trip airfare for two," a voicemail from the company said. "It is imperative you call me back. This will be your final opportunity."
Kenney called SmarTravel and was told that in order to get one of few available cruises, she and her fiancé had to attend an hour-long sales presentation at the company's office at Keystone at the Crossing.
The agent on the phone assured Kenney she did not have to buy anything.
Using hidden cameras, the Call 6 investigators attended the sales presentation, in which a salesman touted wholesale vacation packages to a group of potential customers, starting at $15,000 to $20,000.
"This is not a high-pressure sales presentation," said salesman No. 1.
He showed a slide of what he called SmarTravel's corporate sponsors, including Indiana University, the Indiana Pacers and Live Nation.
Afterward, a second salesman took Kenney and her fiancé to a table, where he broke down the numbers.
"It's 2,800 down, $248 a month for 84 months or sooner," said salesman No. 2. "It's based on simple interest. It's 16.75 percent."
The second salesman called over a third salesman, who he called his supervisor. He threw out more numbers.
The total cost, down payment, monthly payment, interest rate and number of weeks of vacation in the package varied each time.
"If you put down half the money, I would give you 0 percent over 48 months, and then starting May 1, $156 a month," said the third salesman.
Kenney was told she had to make a decision while in the office.
"If you put down $100, 0 percent interest for 60 months, starting May 1, $97," the third salesman said.
A fourth salesman took Kenney and her fiancé into a private office, where he changed the pricing again.
"It's just $2,000, that's it," he said. "How close could you guys come?"
When Kenney indicated she did not know how much she would get back on her tax refund, the fourth salesman pushed harder.
"You're getting thousands back, you guys, come on," he said, then lowering the price to $500.
After a visit that lasted an hour and 45 minutes, Kenney said "no" and left the SmarTravel office.
The Call 6 investigators showed the video to Local BBB President Bill Thomas, who said legal high-pressure sales tactics were used.
"Theyre making the deal better and better each time. So every time theyre doing that, its creating confusion," said Thomas. "Pressure like that to sell you on the spot and not give you time to do your research should be a red flag for any consumer."
Deputy Attorney General Abby Kuzma said a company that does not give a list of prices in writing, which SmarTravel did not, is a red flag.
"Thats an important indication that this is not the best business to be working with," she said. "A reputable company will give you, hopefully, written information, allow you to go back and review it and think about it."
The Call 6 investigators also showed the hidden camera video to SmarTravel CEO David Wise.
It seems like a pretty cordial conversation, said Wise. Our objective is not to sell a vacation, the objective is not how to figure out how to get a bigger sale. The objective is every human being leaves there feeling happy.
Kenney asked Wise why the company doesnt give anything in writing showing the different prices for vacation packages.
Theres many different ways to present and put marketing materials together, said Wise. We have a PowerPoint presentation. We illustrate things.
Wise said he would be surprised if any consumer felt misled or pressured by his salespeople.
They work hard to do something to try to make it affordable for you, said Wise, adding that SmarTravel has many satisfied customers. Theres families you havent met that went on vacation that never would have been able to do it but because of us.
The AG's office is investigating Brittany Hogans complaint against SmarTravel, along with one that Mark Silcox filed after having a similar experience with a different travel company.
If youre not interested, then they start lowering the price, or throwing in something extra, said Silcox. They made me feel anxious to get out of there.
Silcox said he attended a sales presentation to receive an eight-day cruise, but it was so difficult to use that he never went on the vacation.
"It was very hard to fit anything into their timeframe and my timeframe," he said.
Hogan didn't go on a cruise, either.
The fine print on the cruise the Call 6 investigators received included paying $99 per person, not traveling seven days before or after a major holiday and flying from "selected airports."
Wise said he did not know what percentage of SmarTravel customers end up using the cruise.
Its an incentive. Its not something youve won, said Wise. Its not like theyre going to back up a plane to your driveway and say, 'Lets go,' whenever youre ready.
"It's very seldom things are just handed to us for free," Thomas said.
"This is a business. They're not giving something away to you," Kuzma said.
Hogan said it took awhile, but SmarTravel eventually let her out of her contract, and she now wants consumers to understand that entering to win a prize could cost more than expected.
"My advice would be, 'Just don't do it,'" she said.
RTV6 did not find SmarTravel or similar companies breaking any laws with their sales tactics, but experts said consumers should be aware they will face great pressure and effective salespeople when they attend a presentation.
Consumers should research the company ahead of time and keep in mind they can decline and leave at any time.
"Before you walk in, think to yourself, 'Im gonna give this an hour,'" said Kuzma. "You might even tell them that up front."
Consumers should also be aware that if they do fill out an entry form, personal information can be shared, depending on the rules of the contest, and that they could receive phone calls, emails and text messages.
IU, the Pacers and the Indiana Fever said they were unaware their logo was being used during SmarTravel's presentation. IU asked the company to remove the logo, and SmarTravel complied immediately.
In spite of a salesman's assertion that the Pacers, Fever, IU and Live Nation are corporate sponsors, the organizations told RTV6 they do not sponsor SmarTravel, but that the company sponsors them. The businesses told RTV6 they have received no complaints about SmarTravel's behavior.
The Federal Trade Commission's Three-Day Cooling-Off Rule allows consumers three days to cancel purchases of more than $25 that are made in their home or at a location that is not the seller's permanent place of business. By law, the company must give consumers a refund within 10 days of receiving a cancellation notice.
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