Dreams of exotic vacations turned into nightmares for hundreds of people who authorities say paid thousands to several Garden State travel firms and received nothing.
The New Jersey Attorney General's Office announced yesterday that it had filed a civil lawsuit against the travel companies and their owner, who are accused of cheating customers in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York.
Dreamworks Vacation Club and related businesses owned by Daryl T. Turner, of Cherry Hill, are accused of conning 198 people who filed complaints.
"In these tight economic times, a vacation package for a good price is a home run for a consumer," but these enticements were too good to be true, said David Szuchman, director of the Division of Consumer Affairs, which is part of the Attorney General's Office.
Attorneys for Turner said the companies had not bilked anyone and that more than 18,000 satisfied customers had taken 250,000 vacations to destinations such as Mexico and Hawaii.
At a court hearing this week, a judge refused to shut down the company or freeze its assets because there was insufficient evidence to back the state's allegations, said Richard Gallucci of Spector, Gadon & Rosen in Philadelphia, which is representing Turner.
"Nobody's ripping off anyone," Gallucci said.
Szuchman said consumers had been promised expensive gifts to attend 90-minute sales presentations that promoted vacations at reasonable prices.
Collectively, the 198 people paid about $400,000 to join a travel club through Dreamworks, Five Point Travel Co., and Bentley Travel, all owned and operated by Turner, officials said. Four were to receive reduced rates at desirable destinations for life.
Sales representatives, "good at what they do," gave high-pressure pitches, Szuchman said. They talked people into paying thousands for deals that were "too good to be true," he said.
They received nothing, Szuchman said - no vacations to Hawaii, no free airline tickets, and no glamorous hotel stays. In some cases, he said, the companies used customers' credit cards for unauthorized charges.
Gallucci's cocounsel, Oliver Griffin, said the firms had offered packages ranging from $1,000 to $7,000. Some customers paid for low-end deals but wanted high-end vacations, Griffin said.
The companies, in Manalapan and Parsippany, are investigating complaints, he said. The attorneys said that if any employees had misrepresented the packages, those sales representatives would be fired and the customers compensated.
In a memorandum filed in response to the lawsuit, Turner acknowledged redeeming "free vacations" could be tedious but was not complicated or impossible.
"I would never jeopardize my company in order to make a quick buck on less than half of 1 percent of my customer base," Turner wrote. "Such behavior is not how I govern my business and, frankly, doesn't make any business sense."
Gallucci said the number of complaints was below 100 because most had come from couples.
The complaints originated in Burlington County, where they were initially investigated by the Division of Consumer Affairs. Some investigators in the office had received sales promotions in the mail themselves, the agency's Renee Lita Borstad said.
Szuchman said criminal charges may follow after the case is referred to investigators with the attorney general and local prosecutors.
Anyone who thinks he or she may have been conned by the company is asked to contact authorities through his or her local consumer protection office or to file a complaint with the division at www.nj.gov/oag/ca/ocp/ocpform.htm. The division can also be reached at 1-800-242-5846.