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Time-Share Trickery

Hopeful sellers lose upfront fees and await nonexistent buyers

Every week, Michael Piccininni gets unsolicited phone calls and postcards from self-proclaimed “time-share resellers” who promise a quick sale of his Williamsburg, Va., unit to buyers they’ve already lined up.

“I don’t know how they got my name,” Piccininni tells Scam Alert. “They all make the same promises. And they all say they need money upfront in order to make it happen.”

In these tough economic times, thousands of time-share owners are anxious to dump their beachfront albatrosses. But it can be tough—last year, time-share sales dropped 40 percent.

Preying on this widespread frustration, scammers identify owners through public property records or lists bought or stolen from resort developers and then contact them with word that their problem is over. The Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office says that time-share reselling scams were its top consumer complaint in 2009.

Piccininni fits the scammers’ target profile. He desperately wants to sell a unit he bought 17 years ago. “My wife and I don’t use it anymore,” he says, “and every year, the maintenance fees increase.” The 78-year-old Floridian originally paid the Wyndham resort $12,000 for a two-week ownership and later tried to sell it back at a significant loss. No luck.

Piccininni has already been scammed twice. One caller promised a rapid sale, but instead took $400 and vanished. Another—one of 17 time-share resellers currently under investigation by the Florida attorney general—charged $500 without delivering the “guaranteed” buyer.

The latest come-ons: “One guy said if I paid him $3,500, he’d take my time-share off my hands.” Another wanted a $900 commission upfront, saying he had a family moving here from Mexico who wanted to buy the time-share. “I offered him twice that amount—after the sale—but he said that was against the law.”

Another variation on the swindle: charging hundreds or even thousands of dollars in advance simply for listing the property, usually on a website. After payment is made, even that may not occur. “It’s way too easy to start a website and do absolutely nothing but take upfront fees,” says Howard Nusbaum, president of the American Resort Development Association.

Tips for sellers:

  •  Never pay upfront fees.
  • Any unsolicited contact from a time-share reseller—particularly with the promise of a big payoff—is a red flag. On average, one-week units sell for $20,000 new and, on resale, fetch as little as a few thousand dollars, depending on market conditions, says Nusbaum.
  • Check with your resort about any resale programs it offers, newsletters with “for sale” listings, or partnerships with local real estate agents. Expect to pay a 10 to 30 percent commission to a legitimate agent for a resale.
  •  Before doing business with any reseller, check its reputation at and with your resort. Confirm licensing claims with your state’s real estate commission.

Sid Kirchheimer is the author of
Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.