The Consumer Protection Division of the state attorney general's office has ordered the campground company Outdoor World to set up a refund program for consumers who purchased camping memberships after being lured by mail containing "slippery words and phrases."
The order affects 6,000 Maryland residents who signed contracts for the vacation memberships, some of which cost $9,000. The cost of the full refunds by the Bushkill, Pa., firm is estimated to be in the millions of dollars, said Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr.
"Their slick sales presentation catches people off guard," Curran said. "This is another example of deception in advertising. We have been very hard on them because the deception leads to consumer fraud."
Officials of Outdoor World could not be reached for comment. Curran said the company may appeal the decision in Baltimore Circuit Court.
The order, issued Saturday, was based on a finding by University of Baltimore law professor Charles Shafer, who served as a hearing officer and listened to "horror stories" in testimony from customers of Outdoor World's campgrounds. Shafer conducted a five-day hearing last October.
Shafer concluded the Outdoor World customers were "blindsided" by a sales promotion that lured them to a one of four campgrounds in Dover, Pa., Lancaster, Pa., Manheim, Pa., and Oak Grove, Va., with the promise of a "valuable prize" that had already been won.
Those prizes included a Lincoln Mark VII Town car, a BMW, color television sets and $10,000. The odds of winning such prizes were 1 in 100,000, said Jacqueline Wei Mintz, an assistant attorney general.
Curran estimates that 5.9 million solicitations were made in multiple mailings to state residents between November 1988 and September 1989.
Once the customer got to the campsite, Shafer found he or she was subjected to up to nine hours of "high pressure and deceptive" sales techniques. Many customers told Shafer they signed membership contracts because they felt that was the only way out of the room. The memberships ranged from $5,000 for a limited period of years to $9,000 for a lifetime privilege.
Consumers were not allowed to confer among themselves or eat, Shafer found.
"These people walked into a trap," Shafer concluded.
The company owns 14 campgrounds on the East Coast, although none are in Maryland.
In June 1989, Curran issued an administrative charge against Outdoor World for alleged deceptive promotional mailings because the solicitations did not disclose the retail value of the prizes that were being offered, a violation of state law.
In any future mail solicitations to state residents, Curran ordered that Outdoor World must state that customers do not have to be subjected to a sales presentation to receive the promised prize. A 10-day grace period is also mandatory if state consumers decide to rescind their contracts for the campground memberships.