There are hundreds of thousands of dissatisfied timeshare owners in the U.S., stuck in often lifetime contracts that are usually difficult or impossible to cancel. Many are elderly and have lost interest in traveling or the ability to do so. Many can no longer afford to continue paying escalating maintenance fees.

Some are dissatisfied by the deterioration of their facilities or are recent buyers who were victimized by high-pressure sales tactics and ended up with lifetime commitments to resorts they will rarely, if ever, use.

In recent years, timeshare exit services have emerged, advertising heavily with promises to help owners jettison their timeshares. But a recent investigation by the nonprofit Consumers’ Checkbook finds that scores of these services have developed reputations for taking advantage of their customers.

Checkbook reviewed hundreds of timeshare-related customer complaints, lawsuits, ads, and marketing schemes, and interviewed timeshare owners and consumer advocates. It found a disturbing picture of a timeshare industry that uses deceptive sales practices to lure consumers into buying timeshares without understanding all the costs of ownership and victimizes them again when they want to unload their properties.

Checkbook found that while timeshare exit services sometimes successfully terminate their customers’ timeshare contracts, many resorts make it difficult or even impossible for those firms to follow through. Some resorts refuse even to deal with exit companies. As a result, there are countless online complaints from exit company clients, who often make the same allegation: After they paid thousands of dollars upfront, their exit companies strung them along for months or years, often with few or no updates. Exit companies often tell customers that eliminating a timeshare can take 12 to 18 months, but some of their contracts specify no firm deadline to complete work.

Checkbook reviewed the complaints of many customers who ask for refunds under the companies’ money-back guarantees, but are told to remain patient. Others are denied refunds based on contractual fine print. The companies may say that the owners failed to provide requested documents or other information within a reasonable time. Some exit firms have gone out of business, stranding owners who paid thousands of dollars and remain on the hook for their timeshare obligations.

Some companies made misleading promises to sign up clients. A common tactic is to mislead owners into believing that unless they get rid of their timeshares, their annual maintenance fees and other charges will pass on to their children. The truth is that children don’t inherit their parents’ timeshare obligations unless they’re co-owners or accept ownership as part of an estate transfer or agreement with the resort.

Missouri, with its Branson-area timeshare developments, is a major center of the timeshare exit industry. The Better Business Bureau serving that region has issued a blistering report on the industry and separate advisories on companies operating in the state. That BBB reports that a staggering 16 Missouri exit companies have BBB “F” ratings.

In September, the Nashville-based BBB, alarmed over escalating complaints, announced that it no longer will award accreditation to any exit company in its area.

Citing the bureau’s actions and customer complaints, AARP recently decided that it will no longer accept advertising from Wesley Financial, which claimed in TV ads that family members will inherit timeshare contracts, and which had been running full-page ads in AARP’s newsletter.

Several state attorneys general have sometimes sued exit companies, accusing them of failing to provide promised services to thousands of customers. Washington State’s suit against Timeshare Exit Team also says the company accepted payment from customers who owned resort timeshares that it knew it couldn’t return or cancel. (Exit companies often consider a foreclosure to be a successful exit that satisfies their contractual obligations.)

But Checkbook found that Missouri’s Attorney General’s office has begun only one action against an exit company, despite receiving large numbers of complaints .

Checkbook found that timeshare exit services often compound their clients’ problems rather than solve them. While working on owners’ behalf, some exit company representatives tell them to stop paying maintenance fees, sometimes in conflict with the companies’ contracts. Owners sometimes are left with huge bills and a foreclosure, which damages their credit.

Although some of these firms successfully terminate their customers’ contracts, there’s a good chance their clients could have achieved the same result on their own for free or at little cost.

If you want to get out of your timeshare contract, start by finding out whether your resort has an exit option. Ask to speak to someone who can help with an exit and not to a sales representative. Be persistent. If your resort doesn’t have an exit program, try negotiating an exit yourself. Some resorts may agree to buy back your timeshare, especially if it’s in high demand. More likely, you may have the option of simply returning it, although it might charge you a fee, especially if you can demonstrate that you no longer can afford it or can use it.

If you’ve already signed up with an exit company, closely monitor what it does on your behalf. Check with your resort to verify, but don’t be surprised if your resort refuses to talk to you, citing the limited power of attorney your exit company likely had you sign, giving it the sole authority to act on your behalf. If your exit company stops communicating with you or has violated its contract terms and refuses to provide a refund, let it know you’re prepared to file complaints with the BBB (bbb.org) and with consumer officials in your state and the state where the company is located (usa.gov/state-consumer). You can try doing an end run around your exit company and negotiating an exit directly with your resort. But even if you’re successful, the wording of your exit company contract may not entitle you to a refund.

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Delaware Valley Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org is a nonprofit organization that helps consumers get the best service and lowest prices. It is supported by consumers and takes no money from the service providers it evaluates. You can access the full report on timeshare exit companies, along with all of Checkbook’s ratings and advice, until July 20 at Checkbook.org/Inquirer/timeshare-exit.