State orders resort firm to refund members' fees

September 17, 1990|By Lynda Robinsonand S.M. Khalid

A Pennsylvania firm that lured thousands of Marylanders to visit its campgrounds with false promises of valuable prizes and then pressured them into buying memberships has been ordered by Maryland's attorney general to refund what could be millions of dollars in fees.

Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. described the firm, Outdoor World, as a "Michelangelo in ... [the] art of deception." He said that some 6,000 Marylanders who signed contracts to pay as much as $9,000 to its resort campgrounds in Pennsylvania and Virginia are entitled to refunds because of deceptive promotional practices.

Between November 1988 and last September, Outdoor World mailed nearly 6 million fliers to Maryland residents with the promise: "You have won a valuable prize. Come visit us and pick it up." Among the prizes listed were cars, color televisions and $10,000 in cash.

Glenda Meads, a 57-year-old federal worker, was recovering from a ruptured disc in her back when she received a solicitation at her Columbia home in March 1988.

At the time, Mrs. Meads said, she was depressed and in pain. She was taking pain killers, muscle relaxants and wearing a device that uses electrical charges to ease back pain.

"I was in a gullible state," Mrs. Meads said last night. "I thought I'd run up there, get my gift and that would cheer me up."

She got lost on her way to Outdoor World's headquarters in Bushkill, Pa., and didn't have time to stopfor lunch. When she learned she would have to tour the campground before collecting her prize, she told them she wanted something to eat.

"They said: 'This won't take long,'" Mrs. Meads said. But the tour and sales pitch lasted five hours.

Without food, Mrs. Meads couldn't take her pain medication and felt progressively worse as the salesmen pressured her to buy a $7,000 membership to the campground. She finally agreed.

"I wanted to sign anything to get out of there," she said. "In my normal state, I probably wouldn't have done it. Once I got some food and got home, I thought: 'What have I done?'"

Mrs. Meads' experience was common among Marylanders who visited Outdoor World's other campgrounds, including the Gettysburg Farm in Dover, Pa.; the Circle M Ranch Resort in Lancaster, Pa.; the Pennsylvania Dutch Country Resort in Manheim, Pa.; and the Harborview Resort in Oak Grove, Va.

Consumers were told that theywould not get their prizes if they left, Mr. Curran said. They also were prevented from buying food, resting or conferring among themselves during the tour and sales pitch, which could last as long as nine hours.

Among those who endured the hard-sell promotion were a stroke victim and a wheelchair-bound cancer patient, Mr. Curran said.

In Maryland, more than 400 victims of Outdoor World filed complaints with the attorney general's office. Some testified that they signed agreements because it seemed like the only way they could get out.

Many described themselves as hungry and exhausted by the time they signed the complicated membership contracts.

Outdoor World was directed by the state's consumer protection division to end its deceptive solicitation and sales practices in Maryland and set up a procedure to give state consumers an opportunity to cancel their contracts and receive a refund. It also must refund fees consumers paid in order to receive prizes and it must provide prizes for those who failed to claim them because they did not want to pay a redemption fee.

Outdoor World must now disclose the purpose of its mailing in any future solicitations and inform consumers that they do not have to submit themselves to a sales pitch to receive a promised prize.

Mrs. Meads said she wound up paying a $520 deposit before she began fighting to cancel her contract.

"As soon as I realized what I had done, I started fighting the system," she said. "They kept hounding me for the money, but they finally released me" from the contract.

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