What Happened When We Decided to Follow a 'Free Vacation' Mail Offer

PHOTO: "Nightline" set out on a mission to track the anatomy of a "free vacation" runaround.PlayABC News
WATCH Tracking Too-Good-To-Be-True 'Free Vacation' Mail Offer

Vacation clubs and timeshare companies are popular all over the country.

So when “Nightline” was contacted by a company promising two free airline tickets and a free hotel stay, we set out on a mission to track the anatomy of a "free vacation" runaround.

It all started when “Nightline’s” executive producer received a letter in the mail congratulating him on a free dream vacation, which included a two-night stay at any Marriott Hotel location. But when we Googled the phone number that the letter says to call to set up the trip, our search returned dozens of complaints from people who had received a similar letter.

“The problem is a lot of folks get taken in to believing something can be done simply, that they’re going to get a great deal and not understanding whenever you’re looking at timeshares or travel clubs, these are very serious real estate transactions,” said New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, speaking generally about the industry.

ABC News' Rebecca Jarvis and two ABC News producers called the number and scheduled an appointment with the mystery company to try to claim the free trip. The person on the phone told us we needed to attend a 90-minute presentation and we would have to pay the taxes and luggage fees the airlines charges for the airline tickets, but otherwise, we were told the vacation was free.

So two ABC News producers, who pretended to be a married couple, put on hidden cameras and went to the presentation, which was at a hotel in Brooklyn, to pick up the tickets.

As the seminar started, the presenter began name-dropping, “our partners Marriott,” “our partners, Viking River Cruises.”

Schneiderman said, in his experience, "We frequently find folks who ... have no qualms about abusing the names of legitimate businesses, so be careful."

We later asked Marriott and other "partners" that the company named whether they were really affiliated with this outfit. All declined to comment for this story, but said they were looking into it.

The seminar was like a relentless sales pitch, with a man named James, who was leading it, congratulating the group for qualifying for these free gifts.

“I’d like to congratulate and welcome each and every one of you lovely folks to this presentation about our company,” he said. “This afternoon, come in and claim your all-expense paid trip to the French Polynesia, and the $5,000 spending.”

James offered vacations for a steal, but only if we were willing to hand over thousands of dollars to join the company’s travel club.

“If this program can't save you one nickel, then I suggest that you don’t buy,” James told the group. “But everybody in this room, it sounds like you've done a little traveling, so you will be very impressed with what I’m going to share with you.”

At the end of the seminar, James’ associates came in to close the sale. Even though our two producers made it very clear that they were there to claim the free trip they were promised and nothing more, it didn't seem to make a difference.

Another salesperson, named Robert, came over to check in with our undercover producers. Ninety minutes had passed, and still there was no sign of those tickets. When it became apparent our producers were not willing to sign up for the travel club, the sales team moved them to three different locations, to talk to three different sales people, apparently hoping to get them to sign up anyway.

“It’s a 10-year membership, for the $995, and it’s one week a year,” one salesperson named Clay said during one of these encounters.

Our producers eventually were given vouchers for a free trip, but in order to get the actual trip, the vouchers said they had to send in more money -- two money orders of $75 each to get the free airline tickets -- which we did.

After 15 days, we received a package, but it wasn't tickets, it was more paperwork, asking us to pay a $79 activation fee per person, and a $158 fee to mail the club certificate back, along with a check or money order.

We decided to track down PPV Elite Travel to find out why the complimentary tickets cost so much. We tracked them down in New Jersey, where they were about to host another seminar, and went in to try to talk to them on-camera.

When we first walked in, we saw some of the same salespeople from the previous seminar, but they quickly left the room, except for a man who said his name was Thorne Greene. For the next 20 minutes, “Thorne” appeared to dodge our questions and couldn't seem to explain why the “free” trip actually costs lots of money.

Thorne claimed the free gifts are fulfilled by an outside third party company and the company he worked for is responsible for fulfilling the trip. Thorne admitted we “have to jump through hoops for complimentary trips.”

“I’ll be forward with you,” he said. “We give a 90-minute presentation. If you attended a presentation, then this [travel club] form was signed.”

Attorney General Schneiderman said third party companies can be a sign of trouble. We called and emailed PPV Elite, and several other companies we believed were associated with PPV, asking for an interview or comment. All said they would get back to us and haven’t yet.

Today, we still don’t have the complimentary hotel stay or complimentary airline tickets we were promised, but we were offered a new deal -- a letter offering a new opportunity to do more business with this company.