This article was originally published Aug. 9, 2009.
Nina Healy, 24, has been out of school awhile. But for the last year, she has been getting a lesson in something never on the curriculum. Call it Consumer Minefields 101.
Her studies began one spring evening at Citizens Bank Park. The Phillies were on their way to a World Series championship. Healy and her boyfriend, Ken Lavallee, were en route to their seats when they made a seemingly innocuous decision: Each entered a raffle, Sundance Vacations' "Ultimate Sports Giveaway."
Some details of what resulted may be open to debate. But when Healy contacted Consumer 9.0, this much was clear: After paying more than $1,300, she still owed $3,500 toward a Sundance vacation package - a $4,000 purchase she says she didn't need, couldn't really afford, and quickly realized she never should have bought.
Healy hasn't made use of the vacation package, which promised 12 weeks of accommodations in various resort areas in the United States, Mexico, and the Caribbean.
Nor did she and Lavallee ever take the "free cruise" they say was offered to lure them to a Sundance sales presentation - a cruise that would have cost them $400 in port fees and taxes plus a $100 deposit, all before they'd learn their port of departure and how much it would cost to get there.
But that's getting ahead of the story. Healy shared her version, mistakes and all, in hopes of helping other consumers. Sundance officials also offered their perspective on the transaction and their business, which they say provides discount vacations to thousands of satisfied customers.
Why wasn't Healy among them? Let's roll the tape back to June 2008.
Prize or hook?
As you might have guessed, Healy didn't win Sundance's $50,000 grand prize. But she and her boyfriend thought they'd won something, because of calls each received a short time later.
Healy says a Sundance rep told her, "I just wanted to congratulate you. You've won a cruise of your choice to the Caribbean." The only catch: In order to collect, she and Lavallee had to sit through a sales pitch at Sundance's King of Prussia offices.
Healy was a bit leery. She lives with her parents in Elkins Park and earns less than $20,000 a year at a Montgomery County greenhouse. Lavallee, a premed student at Mansfield University of Pennsylvania, works part time as a certified nurse's assistant.
But a free cruise sounded too good to pass up. "I never win anything," Healy says. "Of course I was going to sit through an an hour-long presentation."
Sundance, for its part, disputes at least one aspect of Healy's account.
"We have very specific rules when contacting guests. It's not a prize that we're offering. It's a promotional offer," marketing director Chip Kilby told me. "We would like to give you this for spending your time with us."
Healy thought she would have no problem saying no. But when the group presentation ended and she and Lavallee sat down for a face-to-face session, "no" didn't seem to be an option.
Healy says the sales rep first offered a $15,000 package, and went down from there as she and Lavallee say each plan was out of reach. Finally, he pitched the $4,000 plan - and sealed it by offering to arrange instant financing on a new M&T Bank credit card.
The sales rep took her driver's license and personal information and soon came back with the news. "He said, 'Good for you. You're preapproved for a $10,000 limit. We can put this on the card for you,' " Healy recalled.
Healy signed the four-page contract, plus a page-long disclosure that highlighted key terms such as a $99-per-trip booking fee and upgrade charge for peak-season trips.
Healy's answers also affirmed that buying the package wasn't a financial hardship, that she had not been subject to "high-pressure sales tactics," and that she had no right to rescind the contract.
About now, you may be low on sympathy. But as someone who nearly signed onto a similar deal back in my 20s - until my more levelheaded wife restrained me - I know where Healy and Lavallee were coming from.
Not a time-share
There was one key difference between the pitch I considered back then and what Sundance offers.
Mine was a "time-share" - technically, I would have owned a share of an actual piece of real estate, such as a resort-area condo, though I'd also have enjoyed access to units in other resort areas on a space-available basis.
"That's the key word there: owners," Kilby says. "We're a vacation company. You go on vacation for a week to one of our 200 properties. Once you've used your vacations, you're done."
Here's another key difference: Under Pennsylvania's time-share law, if I'd had buyer's remorse, I'd have had five days to rescind the deal.
Joseph K. Goldberg, a Harrisburg lawyer and former director of the state attorney general's Bureau of Consumer Protection, says Sundance's business model bears considerable resemblance to that of a time-share company, both in how it operates and how it markets.
"One of the reasons the time-share law requires a cooling-off period is that more often than not, the marketing is a hard-sell technique," Goldberg says. "The type of transaction is often not easily understood, and it's hard to get up and walk away."
The Attorney General's Office won't say whether Sundance, with headquarters in Wilkes-Barre, has drawn any complaints. The Better Business Bureau, which counts Sundance as a member, says it has processed 57 complaints about the company during the last 36 months, including 16 in the last year.
The BBB says it considers virtually all those complaints resolved or addressed, although in more than half the cases the BBB says the consumer "failed to acknowledge acceptance" of the resolution.
Sundance finally resolved Healy's issues. On Thursday, after I called to ask about Healy's case, Kilby says Sundance was refunding her $4,000. She'll still have lost hundreds of dollars in credit card interest and fees - another section in her Consumer Minefields 101 course work - but it brings a happy ending to what is otherwise a cautionary tale.
Kilby says Healy made one fundamental mistake: She didn't complain to the company itself. "Our goal is not to have people stressed out. We want our customers to be happy," he told me. "All this could have been avoided if she'd just given us a call."
Why didn't she? Healy says the answer is simple: because Sundance's own materials made clear that she was entering a contract that she couldn't expect to escape.
Kilby says Sundance offered a piece of the American vacation dream at an affordable price. "We're like the Sam's Club of vacations," he says.
Counters Goldberg: "If I'm not mistaken, Sam's Club gives you a pretty good return policy."