Mass. AG sues companies for alleged discount travel scam

The state attorney general’s office announced today it has sued a Pittsfield-based discount travel company and its affiliate for allegedly scamming at least 25 customers out of thousands of dollars by luring them with misleading offers of deeply-discounted or free travel prices.

The lawsuit filed in Suffolk Superior Court is seeking $108,000 in restitution for alleged victims and another $170,000 in civil penalties from Berkshire Concepts, LLC, Netrate Concepts, LLC, their Yarmouth-based affiliate CRW Marketing, Inc., and their owners Charles Whiteman, of Dennis, and Daniel Merritt, of Pittsfield, official said.

The companies allegedly used “high pressure sales tactics” to convince customers to pay thousands to access an online database advertised as an exclusive listing of wholesale travel prices that allows members to book extremely low, or even free, travel, authorities said.

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But the database did not deliver the promised discounts, the attorney general’s office said. And the companies allegedly failed to send log-in information for the membership website until after a three-day cancellation period, authorities said

“As a result, consumers were unable to determine whether they were satisfied with their purchases until it was too late for them to cancel,” the office said.

A family in Carlisle paid nearly $6,000 for a “platinum level” membership that they were told included six weeks of accommodations in luxury condominiums throughout the world, unlimited cruises, and “dream trips.” But, according to the attorney general’s office, the website referred them to a different travel search engine that did not offer the promised deals.

Others found that the database’s prices were about equal to, or in some cases higher, than prices available through free travel sites, like Orbitz or Expedia, authorities said.

The companies allegedly lured residents in Massachusetts and other states between Feb. 2011 and last April by sending postcards that either said the recipients could call a toll-free number to redeem a free travel prize or the postcards offered residents a free cruise or airfare in return for attending a presentation, the attorney general’s office said.

Customers later learned the “free travels” cost hundreds of dollars in taxes and fees, officials said.

The companies also allegedly offered a “concierge service” to plan customized travel. But, according to the attorney general’s office, service agents were often slow to respond and made major errors while booking the trips.

None of the customers received refunds from the companies.

The office said the companies have been ordered by a court “to stop using allegedly deceptive marketing to sell travel memberships.”

“Vacation or travel scams offer free or discounted deals that often never materialize, and our office alleges these companies stole thousands of dollars from consumers through their deceptive memberships,” Attorney General Martha Coakley said in a statement.

“While many travel opportunities are genuine, we want to educate the public as much as possible to protect themselves and be wary of deals that sound too good to be true,” she added.