Over the years, the timeshare deal Christine and William Tight signed in the late Nineties as a way of getting cheap family holidays around the world had become a millstone.
Initially, for £6,000 upfront and a few hundred pounds in annual service charges, they could book a week every year in an apartment in Spain, Austria, Florida or other popular destinations.
But by 2013, the service fees had grown to £1,000 a year and they were fed up with the holiday choices they were being offered.
However, when the couple, from Langford, Bedfordshire, tried to offload the timeshare they were told the deal was a contract for life.
Scouring the internet for another way out, they found a firm called International Timeshare Refund Action (Itra), which was offering to help get rid of unwanted timeshares and launching a legal bid to win compensation for owners who had been mis-sold deals.
The Tights called Itra and arranged to fly to its office in Fuengirola, on the Costa del Sol, to seal the deal.
There, they handed over £4,850 – £502 on the day and the balance a few days later. They understood they would never have to worry about the £1,000-a-year maintenance fees again.
But a few months later they received their usual bill from their timeshare firm. And since then, they’ve received two more demands for payment.
Itra says timeshare resorts often threaten debt collection and its clients are informed of this.
When Christine contacted Money Mail in July – nearly four years after their appointment with Itra in Spain – she said she still felt burdened by the timeshare deal and feared she would never be rid of it.
The Tights are among a number of readers who have contacted Money Mail since we first wrote about Itra in July this year.
Then, we told the story of Itra clients Harold and Brenda Walker, an elderly couple who went to court to win back £7,180 after becoming concerned the company wasn’t able to offer the help they had signed up for.
In many of the letters we’ve received, Itra customers say they have similar concerns. Itra says, though, that the Walker judgment in the small claims court is not binding, and if similar cases come to court they will vigorously defend them.
Typically, customers come across Itra as they seek a way to offload an unwanted timeshare.
Thousands of families signed up to these deals in the 1980s and 1990s. Often, families are concerned the small print in their contacts will mean the service fees pass on to their children when they die.
But many are finding that no matter what they do, nobody will take the deals off their hands.
In desperation, some owners are even listing their timeshares on online auction sites such as eBay and Gumtree for as little as 99p.
Against this backdrop, Itra provides a ray of hope. It says for an upfront fee – typically between £4,000 and £7,500 – it will dispose of your timeshare and take responsibility for sorting out any future management fees.
Contracts seen by Money Mail also say it will be responsible for any legal costs and ‘alleged unpaid management fees’ in the future. However, the contract states that it is not covered by timeshare regulations.
According to Richard Thorpe, a partner at law firm Shakespeare Martineau, timeshare rules stipulate that a company cannot take any fees for ‘reselling’ timeshares until the contract has been ‘sold or otherwise terminated’.
In all the complaints seen by Money Mail, Itra has asked for a deposit upfront, with some of it usually payable on the day you sign the contract.
The company says the rules do not apply to its business because it is not reselling the timeshares but ‘disposing’ of them.
It is unclear exactly what disposing means in practice, but the aim is to make it so the contract does not exist any more.
After signing the contract, customers tell us that when they have tried to contact Itra to check everything is in order, they have found it difficult to get confirmation.
In some cases, they keep receiving bills for timeshare fees they thought they would no longer have to pay.
Robin and Susan Dungworth, who are in their 60s, are still paying the service charges for their timeshare in Gran Canaria, despite handing £3,791 to Itra in 2012.
And Janyce Coles, 71, says she struggled to get any further information from Itra about her timeshare in Tenerife after paying £4,480 to get rid of it in July 2015.
The retired bookkeeper says she called many times after signing the contract with Itra, and only in December – six months later – was she told that the process would be completed within ‘two to three weeks’.
Mrs Coles, a widow from Bournemouth, next heard from Itra in February by email when a representative asked if the company could phone her. The call was never received.
Concern: Harold and Brenda Walker went to court to win back £7,180
She says: ‘I’ve asked several times for confirmation to say I no longer own the timeshare, and the last reply said Itra would look into it.
‘It’s giving me sleepless nights, I feel so desperate about the whole situation. They have my original deeds, and I just can’t seem to get a straight answer.’
Itra says that it got rid of Mrs Coles’s timeshare in July this year. It says she had been asked for a copy of her passport to process the disposal, but she did not send it, hence the delay.
Amid concerns that customers are paying upfront fees for services they take issue with, Money Mail sought out the company’s directors for an explanation.
But we were put in touch with the company’s lawyer, who said the company was complying with its obligations and was helping customers to get rid of their timeshares.
Itra’s slick website is littered with quotes from happy customers. At the top of the page, people are urged to call a Freephone 0800 number to find out how the firm ‘can help claim your money back’.
At the bottom, there’s a list of 15 offices. Some are in business parks, including a block in Churchill House, Slough.
But there are also some in locations overseas such a business park in Tangier, Morocco, and in a huge tower block next to a shopping mall in Singapore.
The website also includes articles giving advice to timeshare owners. The most recent warns owners they might consider offloading their timeshares as a result of the Brexit vote.
On one page, customers can make an online payment straight away to get the process of handing over their timeshare started.
Although it’s easy to contact a consultant at Itra about getting rid of your timeshare – it’s not as easy to find out who runs the firm. It is registered in the Seychelles, where there is no public database showing ownership of companies.
But Andrew Charles Cooper lists himself on social networking website LinkedIn as a ‘consultant’ at Itra and has been named as a senior figure at the firm in previous newspaper articles.
Mr Cooper, 47, lists interests as: ‘Making money the correct way’.
He owns a five-bedroom home, currently on sale for £1.29 million, in a village in Buckinghamshire. The enormous house boasts a swimming pool and a stylish patio with sun loungers underneath an outdoor heater.
A huge double garage – which looks as though it could make a modest home of its own – is occupied by a gleaming black Bentley.
As well as his work at Itra, Mr Cooper is the sole director and shareholder of a business that appears to operate in a similar field. It is called the European Claims Centre and was set up earlier this summer.
It offers to help owners who were sold timeshares claim compensation and have their contracts ruled null and void under new rules handed down by the Spanish Supreme Court. There’s nothing on the website to show the European Claims Centre is linked to Itra.
But a firm with an identical name to the European Claims Centre, registered in Washington State in the U.S., was investigated by the British Advertising Standards Authority watchdog in July, following a complaint about the firm’s marketing tactics.
The European Claims Centre in the U.S. said it has the same shareholders as Itra, making them legally associated companies.
And its offices shown on its website, the ASA report says, were leased by Client Admin Services Ltd, the administration company for Itra in the UK, where Mr Cooper is listed as a director.
In the ASA report, the European Claims Centre said it has an agreement in place with Itra to introduce clients to the firm.
In its ruling the advertising watchdog said the firms did not clearly show they were linked.
It’s not the first time Mr Cooper’s timeshare businesses’ activities have come under the spotlight of the authorities.
In 2012, the Insolvency Service stepped in to wind up a number of timeshare companies run by Mr Cooper and other associates.
In a damning report, the Insolvency Service described how the tactics of the companies run by Mr Cooper engaged in ‘misleading selling’ to customers.
It said it was ‘in the public interest’ to wind up the seven firms. Mr Cooper was a director of two of these.
The report found timeshare owners were ‘cold-called’ and invited to attend a presentation run by Itra where they could sign up to a law suit against the timeshare industry for mis-selling.
But the Itra presentation then ‘seamlessly’ morphed into a sales pitch for a firm called Club Class.
Customers were told there was an opportunity to ‘irrevocably relinquish’ their timeshares, typically paying £7,000 to £15,000. However, they were ‘not given any indication’ that this could end in failure, the report said.
The Insolvency Service found that customers were still being billed for their timeshare service charges up to a year after they had been told by Club Class they were not liable. In some cases, Club Class had not even contacted the timeshare company at all.
Mr Cooper was also listed as a director of Club Class Concierge.
Bill and Karen Crampin, from Nottingham, paid Itra £5,240 in 2014 and understood it would get rid of the property, a luxury development in Northumberland.
They were paying almost £1,000 a year – double the amount they were charged when they signed up. But a year later their timeshare company was still demanding maintenance fees and said they still owned the property.
The Crampins paid another £3,364 to the original timeshare firm to get rid of their liability.
They have asked Itra for their £5,240 back but it has refused, saying Mr Crampin sold the timeshare of his own accord before Itra could complete its disposal.
Bill, 70, a retired architect, says: ‘It’s pretty devastating. I don’t get emotional but I do get angry.’
A spokesman for Itra said yesterday: ‘Itra is a company that has been operating for 11 years and has successfully helped thousands of clients escape oppressive and costly timeshare agreements.
‘Itra has actioned more than 1,000 timeshare relinquishments (whereby clients are freed from their timeshare agreements) and in some cases helped people to seek compensation where mis-selling can be proved.
‘At all times Itra is transparent with clients about the services it provides to them. Itra’s mission is to assist consumers who would otherwise be daunted by the process of extricating themselves from unwanted timeshares that they had agreed to purchase from large powerful resort operators.’
read the original article here https://www.thisismoney.co.uk/money/news/article-3810740/Can-trust-firm-says-rid-timeshare-price-families-did-lived-regret-it.html