Consuming Interests: State safeguards can take weight off stranded gym members

March 07, 2010|By Liz F. Kay | liz.kay@baltsun.com

What can you do if the gym where you've been working out isn't working out?

That's the conundrum faced by about 3,000 members of the former Gold's Gym in Parkville who received letters last month stating that the franchise location had closed as of Feb. 6.

Some customers, like Esther Roskam, were upset because by the time she received her letter Feb. 12, her monthly membership fees had already been automatically debited from her checking account. For some other members, it was more than just a month's fee at risk. They had paid hundreds of dollars upfront for long-term contracts.

"I felt pretty irritated," said Roskam, who lives in Parkville. She added that air-conditioning and exercise equipment often didn't work. "I endured so many annoyances and inconveniences, and what I felt were general injustices with that gym."

The good news is that consumer protections are in place for gym members in Maryland. Health clubs, gyms and self-defense schools are required under state law to register with the consumer protection division of the state attorney general's office, said Alfreda Cooper, director of the health club registration unit. Gyms that collect more than three months of fees upfront or charge more than $200 in initiation fees are required to be bonded with the division.

However, some government, nonprofit and university facilities are exempt from this requirement. That might come as bad news for those who purchased lifetime memberships to the Brigade Sports Complex at the U.S. Naval Academy.

The complex was run by the Naval Academy Athletic Association, which plans to turn the facility over to the academy at the end of the month - and private memberships won't be allowed. Members there were told by athletic association officials they would receive pro-rated refunds, but that might not include the $150 lifetime memberships.

The Parkville Gold's Gym location had been registered in the past, but it was not registered at the time it closed, Cooper said. As a result, she is still working to determine whether the franchise was bonded, she said.

Cooper directed patrons of the former Parkville Gold's Gym, or others who have health club complaints, to file a complaint at the attorney general's Web site - www.oag.state.md.us/Consumer/complaint.htm. Consumers may also call the consumer hot line at (410) 528-8662 or (888) 743-0023. About 30 complaints have been filed by Gold's Parkville customers, she said.

"They can tell us the daily interactions they have with a business, and that helps me to be able to ask the proper questions," Cooper said.

She said the Gold's Gym had posted some security, and she is working to determine what former members are still owed.

Dave Reiseman, a spokesman for Gold's Gym International, apologized for the unexpected closure of the Parkville fitness center, which he said never recovered financially from an October fire and had been hit hard by the economic downturn.

"The combination of these two factors made it impossible for the franchisee to sustain the gym's operations," Reiseman said.

Former members who paid in full can continue their memberships at either the Gold's Gym in Dundalk without additional dues. Seven Brick Bodies gyms in the Baltimore area also are accepting former Parkville members at Gold's rates, he said.

Consumers who were charged by Gold's through their credit cards or automatic bank withdrawals, can seek charge-backs, Cooper said. That's the remedy Roskam sought. Her bank gave her a provisional credit for the $35 gym charge while it investigates her claim.

As for those exercise enthusiasts looking to join a gym, Cooper said consumers can take some steps to protect their investment.

"People have to ask themselves, 'When you give somebody your money, what are you getting for it in return?' " she said. "All you have in exchange is, at most, a piece of paper promising you services in the future."

Cooper warned consumers to "be very cautious handing someone really large sums of money in exchange for a long-term contract." Paying monthly or a short-term contract might be a better alternative. Customers also have three days to cancel after signing a contract, according to the attorney general's Web site.

Prospective members can check the health club unit's database on the Web site to ensure a gym is registered and bonded, for those considering long-term contracts.

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