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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Adrian Horton

John Oliver on timeshares: ‘Lying is a key strategy’

John Oliver: ‘Timeshare companies and timeshare exit companies are both terrible. One is a shitty business model that’s somehow technically legal, and the other is oftentimes an out-and-out scam.’
John Oliver: ‘Timeshare companies and timeshare exit companies are both terrible. One is a shitty business model that’s somehow technically legal, and the other is oftentimes an out-and-out scam.’ Photograph: YouTube

John Oliver dug into the $8.1bn predatory industry of timeshares and the equally troublesome industry of helping people escape them on Sunday’s Last Week Tonight. Though long lampooned as a scam on various television shows, Oliver noted that timeshare ownership, in which “rights to use” are divided among multiple parties with lifetime contracts but no ownership of the property, has risen in recent years. Nearly 10m households in the US own one of more type of timeshare, often rebranded as “vacation clubs” or “vacation ownership plans”.

It’s not just traditional timeshares, where “you would buy a timeshare that consisted of one week every year at, say, a condo in Florida”, he explained. Some companies now tout “floating weeks” that could theoretically be used any time throughout the year, or timeshare points to be redeemed at various timeshares.

“But whatever you call timeshares, the people selling them maintain that they are not just excellent value, they are actively good for you,” Oliver noted. But “timeshares don’t save lives – in fact in many cases, they could fuck them up. Because they are incredibly easy to get into but, as you will see, incredibly hard to get out of.”

For one, timeshares tend to be sold “aggressively” by “suckering people into agonizingly long sales presentations with the promise of a free gift”, he explained, pointing to the story of one woman who gave in to buying a timeshare after a five-hour presentation because she was diabetic and “needed something to eat”.

“And I do get that!” Oliver said. “Listening to a timeshare presentation is dead last on a list of things I want to do for five straight hours, right after watching Avatar: The Way of Water, telling children that their pet hamster was eaten by their other pet hamster and that neither one ever knew the child in question existed, and of course, hearing other people talk about watching Avatar: The Way of Water.”

And timeshare companies can go to “extreme lengths” to get people to agree on the spot to deals worth tens of thousands of dollars. “Lying is a key strategy for many timeshare salespeople,” said Oliver. “They will lie about everything, from the ease of making reservations, to the total cost of the timeshare.”

He pointed to evidence from a 2016 lawsuit against Wyndham, which found the company used the acronym Taft – “tell them any frigging thing”. “And come on, at this point, just say ‘fucking’,” Oliver joked. “Because it’s one thing to lie. It’s another to do that while talking like a middle-schooler who’s in the car with their mom but still trying to sound hard.”

Oliver cited a 2018 study which found that 85% of timeshare owners who got to contract regretted their purchase, “which is a rate of regret on par with people who bought teacup pigs only to realize that ‘teacup pigs’ don’t really exist. What do exist are baby pigs that grow into a 90lb piece of livestock that can suffocate your cat.”

Why the regrets? First, cost – the upfront cost for an annual timeshare can average about $24,140, not including annual maintenance fees in the thousands of dollars and pressure to upgrade for more money. Oliver played a news clip featuring one man who was pressured to upgrade for $15,000 for a timeshare he’d never been able to book after three years of ownership. “Being asked to pay $15,000 for something that you’ve only seen in pictures is not a timeshare,” said Oliver. “That’s an expensive and remarkably niche OnlyFans response.”

It’s also very hard to leave, because of the “perpetuity clause” which makes the purchase a non-cancellable, lifetime obligation. “Which is ridiculous!” said Oliver. “A contract for a vacation shouldn’t be harder to get out of than fucking Scientology.”

It can be hard if not impossible to sell a timeshare; Oliver pointed to the real estate website Red Week, where some timeshares were listed for literally $0. “Keep that in mind anytime anyone says timeshares are an ‘investment’,” he said. “Investments are supposed to gain value. A timeshare is as sound an investment as opening a Ghislaine Maxwell-themed restaurant.”

Which is why a secondary industry of allegedly getting people out of timeshares has sprung up. The so-called “timeshare exit industry” would seem like the good guys, “given how critical they are of the timeshare industry”, said Oliver. “Unfortunately, they are very much not.” Timeshare Termination Team in Denver, for example, took $14,000 of one woman’s money and then disappeared from their office.

Oliver didn’t mince words: “Timeshare exit companies are total bullshit,” he said, which are “taking advantage of people on a massive scale”. One company in Missouri, for example, is accused of bilking customers of $90m for exit services that were not delivered.

“Timeshare companies and timeshare exit companies are both terrible,” he concluded. “One is a shitty business model that’s somehow technically legal, and the other is oftentimes an out-and-out scam. But neither is good.”

He pointed to numerous “heartbreaking” stories of people feeling ashamed for losing their money to timeshares, and sometimes again to timeshare exit companies. “To be clear, the shame here should not be on the people who were duped,” Oliver added. “It should be on the industries that exploited them, told them ‘any frigging thing’ they wanted to, and abused their understandable desire just to take a fucking break.

“The best bet right now seems to be to make sure that we all warn each other about just how fucked up this whole industry is.”

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