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State pursuing damages for customers in travel club scam

At least 650 victims who lost money several years ago in a Largo-based travel club accused of using unfair and deceptive trade practices might see some relief.

The Florida Attorney General's Office is asking to hire an expert to help determine the damages to each customer that bought travel club memberships from Suncoast Incentives LLC or one of its sister companies, including United Vacation Network, Suncoast Vacations, Travel Services USA LLC and Capital Financial Marketing.

The agency's economic crime unit filed a civil complaint against Suncoast Incentives LLC in 2009, alleging the companies duped customers into buying worthless memberships. Customers were told the membership would entitle them to deep discounts on future travel.

"Most customers can do just as well booking online for their airfare, cruise tickets, hotels or motels," the complaint said.

The companies were owned by Nicholas Congleton, who spent substantial sums of corporate money on "personal endeavors," according to the complaint.

All of the companies are based in Pinellas County, but Suncoast has operated travel seminars elsewhere, including Hudson. Customers received postcards in the mail promising a "free cruise" just for attending. In reality, the complaint said, the cruises carried fees. And the well-known airlines and resorts shown on the postcard had no relationship with Suncoast.

Congleton said in response to the attorney general's complaint that leadership in the companies was "thrust upon him" when his mother died. He accused an employee of stealing "thousands of dollars" from the company and said a "reasonable" person wouldn't assume a contract had to exist with an airline or resort based on one photo. He also said the agreement noted that the free cruise included taxes and port fees and was being handled by a third party.

But a judge sided with the state in January.

"I find it was deceptive," Circuit Judge John Schaefer wrote in his order. However, he put off ordering damages.

"That's what pending right now — the economic relief," said John Lucas, spokesman for the Attorney General's Office. "Our attorneys are expected to file motions on that in the next several weeks."

Lucas couldn't say how many customers might qualify for refunds or how long it would take to get checks into their hands.

That will come as welcome news to customers, some of whom have fought for years to get at least some of their money.

"I've got $4,000 wrapped up in this with nothing to show for it," said Spring Hill resident Debbie Sibley. The 45-year-old teacher's aide and mother of three girls said she tried to back out, but the company said the three-day deadline had passed. Sibley recalled how she and her husband attended the sales meeting, held in a two-story building on State Road 52. A man gave a moving testimonial about "how it helped him and his family," she said.

Afterward attendees were individually ushered into an office where they signed contracts. The Sibleys put $2,000 down. "They reassured us that everything was going to be all right," she said.

According to the complaint, the company said in return for a fee that ranged from $4,000 to $7,000, plus annual fees of a few hundred dollars, customers were promised lifetime memberships that could be willed to children. The plan included deep discounts on vacations, lodging and airfare. Yet a comparison with online travel sites showed little to no differences in prices.

Sibley said she still had all her paperwork as well as threatening letters from collection agencies. She ended up paying the $2,000 balance so it wouldn't harm her credit. She said her family never took the first vacation.

"Wouldn't it be nice to get some money back?" she said. "I had just about given up."

State pursuing damages for customers in travel club scam 11/28/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 28, 2012 7:30pm]
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