PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The attorney general is accusing a city-based travel company of deceptive business practices.
Attorney General Martha Coakley is suing Berkshire Concepts LLC for allegedly misleading customers into paying thousands of dollars for services that were never provided. Coakley is seeking more than $278,000 from the company.
Coakley alleges that Berkshire Concepts, Netrate Concepts and CRW Marketing "used high pressure sales tactics to offer consumers free travel incentives and extreme discounts on travel but instead charged consumers thousands of dollars for access to a 'proprietary software' database that failed to provide the promised discounts."
The company is owned by Charles Whiteman and Dennis and Daniel Merritt of Pittsfield.
"Vacation or travel scams offer free or discounted deals that often never materialize, and our office alleges these companies stole thousands of dollars from consumers through their deceptive memberships," Coakley said in a press release issued on Monday. "While many travel opportunities are genuine, we want to educate the public as much as possible to protect themselves and be wary of deals that sound too good to be true."
According to the complaint issued in court on Tuesday, between February 2011 and April 2013, the companies sent postcards to several residents offering a free cruise or airline tickets for attending a presentation. Other mailings told residents that they had won free travel and needed to claim the prize.
However, the free travel required hundreds of dollars in taxes and fees to redeem. The company also claimed that their website provided customers with direct access to travel tickets at wholesale price. Membership for that access cost thousands of dollars and the company failed to provide log-in information until after the cancellation period expired.
One family paid nearly $6,000 for the 'platinum level' membership, Coakley said. The website did not provide the deals promised during the presentation. Others found the website offered more expensive travel rates than other free websites.
According to the complaint, the company collected thousands of dollars from at least 25 consumers. None of the customers received refunds from the companies and Coakley is seeking more than $108,000 in restitution and $170,000 in civil penalties.
Coakley alleges that the company violated consumer protection laws by advertising 'free' travel while requiring customers to pay taxes and fees, advertising non-existent 'wholesale' discounts and holding customers to a three-day cancellation period without allowing the customer to have access to the website.
The attorney general's office provided the following tips to help residents avoid scams:
Calls or letters saying consumers have won "prizes" or "awards" for a contest that they never entered are almost always ploys.
Always read the fine print on all "prizes" and "gifts" to determine any costs associated with them. It is the consumer’s responsibility to pay for anything not specifically mentioned.
Walk away from high pressure sales tactics including "one-day" or "one-time" offers. Reputable companies will never pressure customers to make immediate decisions, and will allow time to consider the terms of an offer.
Search Internet sites for customer feedback, and call the attorney general's office to determine if other consumers have filed complaints.
Get the details of any offer in writing and review the terms before deciding to sign up or pay a deposit.
Compare promised rates with travel agents, airlines or available Internet-based services. Determine the company that is actually providing the goods or services being promised.
Get the details behind vague promises that packages include stays at "five-star" resorts or sailing on "luxury" cruise ships.
Find out all possible unexpected expenses including hotel costs, meals and transportation. What will the company do if hotel and other accommodations are completely booked?
After determining that a business is reputable, use a credit card to purchase the trip. Credit card companies often provide some protection and can help consumers dispute charges.
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