Timeshare Horrors: Fresh Hope For 100,000 People Locked In Costly Contracts
Could a landmark court victory and fresh EU crackdown finally free families from onerous and unfair timeshares?
Thousands of Britons trapped in onerous timeshare or “holiday club” arrangements – where they are forced to pay annual fees for few or no benefits – could be given an escape route as their contracts are effectively “null and void”. Some might even be able to claim refunds.
These rip-off agreements could completely unravel as a result of a court ruling against “perpetual” timeshares. Soon-to-be-implemented Europe-wide rules are expected to back the decision.
Data shared with Telegraph Money suggests that 100,000 timeshare contracts are affected. Figures from the timeshare industry show that around 12pc of the 850,000 timeshares in Europe could now be considered illegal and their owners due a refund of all money spent, plus interest and legal costs.
While “timeshare” often describes legitimate arrangements where, typically, consumers buy fixed weeks each year at a set resort, the term is also used to describe a vague package of benefits, supposedly attached to a range of resorts, where customers risk being locked into unfair terms.
The latter, sometimes called “holiday clubs” or “floating timeshares”, are notorious. Owners found they had unwittingly agreed to pay hefty annual fees that were supposed to continue after their death, with the obligations passing on to their children or heirs.
Reports have surfaced of people in care homes being forced to pay for timeshares they could not use, as well as relatives of deceased owners being hounded for money.
The Timeshare Consumer Association (TCA), an independent lobby group representing timeshare owners, told Telegraph Money that up to 60pc of agreements were being enforced by providers against the owner’s wishes.
Of the 850,000 timeshare arrangements in Europe, 30pc of owners are in dispute with providers, the TCA said, with many refusing to pay.
A Norwegian woman was awarded more than £28,000 by the Spanish Supreme Court in March, giving fresh hope to Britons locked in similar arrangements.
In the case against the Gran Canaria-based Anfi Group, the judge ruled that “in perpetuity” clauses broke a Spanish law which states that no timeshare agreement signed after January 15 1999 can last more than 50 years. This rendered the whole contract invalid, and the court ordered Anfi to refund all payments as well as interest and legal fees.
Politicians in Brussels are now reviewing relevant timeshare legislation, seeking to apply tighter rules retrospectively, with enforcement expected “later this year”.
Under current rules, the Timeshare Directive implemented by member states in January 2011, provides protection for consumers who signed up to timeshares after this date.
The move could give British consumers reassurance that excessive or unfair charges are unenforceable. The decision from March 6 applied to traditional fixed-week timeshares, but would extend to other agreements “held in perpetuity”.
Currently, around 20,000 timeshare owners across Europe are pursuing group actions against their firms, and around 30,000 people are pursuing cases individually, according to the TCA.
It said it had seen a 25pc increase in inquiries from British owners since the Spanish court’s ruling.
What are the disputed charges?
Timeshares can cost thousands of pounds upfront but the controversy surrounds annual “maintenance fees”.
Owners will have to pay the fees indefinitely, with firms known to pursue “debtors” ruthlessly. This leaves some pensioners forced to pay fees until they die, even if they are too old or ill to use their holiday properties.
Stephen Boyd, a partner at law firm Athena, who deals exclusively with timeshare disputes, said: “The more aggressive resorts will try to pursue an estate for money and might employ debt collectors who can make your life miserable if they get your phone number.”
Affected timeshare owners should write to any debt collection companies that contact them and inform them the debt is disputed. “They will often close their files and leave you alone. If clients have a legitimate dispute they shouldn’t be afraid of debt collectors.”
Mr Boyd, who deals with around 40 timeshare complaints at any given time, said one client with Alzheimer’s was being forced to pay for his timeshare even though he could not travel abroad.
“You think you’re buying something to ensure reasonably priced holidays for life. Instead you end up paying escalating fees for life,” he said.
‘We won a “free” holiday but it actually cost us £2,000’
The offer of a free holiday from a stranger abroad should normally ring alarm bells.
But when an official claiming to be from the “tourist board” approached Bob and Shelley Cartman while they were holidaying in Tenerife in 2012, their trusting instincts got the better of them.
Mr Cartman, who is 69 and retired, was offered a free bottle of wine, but his wife, 60, “won” a grand prize – a week’s free holiday “anywhere in the world”.
They were persuaded to visit a resort called Grand Holidays Club, a well-known company in Tenerife that targets British tourists in an attempt to sign them up to costly timeshare agreements.
After being locked in a room for more than four hours, they paid €2,800 (£1,995) for a “trial” timeshare to provide them with a holiday anywhere in the world – even during the school holidays – for just £99 a week. But these bargain-priced holidays failed to materialise and by 2013 the couple had given up their investment as a lost cause.