PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — A local woman who thought she won a free vacation says it was anything but free. Now she’s complaining to KDKA investigator Andy Sheehan, who found out, she’s not alone.
Heather Dugan says she entered a drawing at a Pirates game last summer and believed she had won a complimentary vacation to the Bahamas, Las Vegas or Mexico from a company called Sundance Vacations, headquartered in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania.
Instead, she says she is now in debt and has yet to take the vacation she thought was free.
“There’s no free vacation,” Dugan told Sheehan. “There’s no vacation because it basically comes down to you paying them more and more money and never getting the trip.”
Dugan said after learning she had won the vacation, she found out it came with strings attached, including additional taxes, fees and a requirement to attend a presentation at the company’s local offices in Monroeville Mall.
There, she says, an army of sales people tried to convince her to buy more vacations.
“If you said no to them, they sent another person in, and another person in and another person in, and they try to talk you into this,” she said.
Enticed by trips to exotic places like Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic and Molokai, Hawaii, Dugan says she relented, putting $900 down on a $7,000 loan to pay for three additional trips. But six months later, the single mother of two is struggling to make the monthly loan payments and hasn’t gone on any vacations, free or otherwise.
KDKA found hundreds of similar stories and complaints about Sundance on the Internet. In addition, the Better Business Bureau’s Pittsburgh office has received 126 complaints in the past three years.
“It’s the high pressure tactics we see in complaints in this type of industry,” says the Bureau’s Executive Director Warren King.
King says so-called vacation club businesses like Sundance pressure prospective clients into loans and agreements with fees and restrictions in fine print that should be reviewed by a lawyer.
But folks like Dugan often end up signing papers on the spot with obligations and debts they never anticipated.
“As a consumer you have the right to say I’m not going to make a decision today, and if this depends on my making a decision today, I’m going to walk out that door,” said King.
When KDKA visited the company’s Monroeville Mall offices, the manager there said he couldn’t comment and escorted Andy Sheehan out.
“I’m just telling you what I was told to say,” the manager told KDKA. “If you have questions you can contact our headquarters in Wilkes Barre.”
In a subsequent email, Sundance said fees associated with the complimentary trip are stated upfront and that people are not pressured to enter into long-term agreements or loans.
In a statement, Sundance CEO John Dowd said: “Sundance Vacations adamantly denies the negative assertions brought forward by Andy Sheehan as a result of this contact with Ms. Dugan. We have thousands of travelers all across the United States that love the travel packages offered by our company. We stand behind our product today, and, just as we always have for the past 25 years, are committed to delivering incredible vacation experiences to our clients.”
Sundance does have an A-plus rating with the Better Business Bureau, but King says that’s because his organization rates companies based on whether the company is responsive to customer complaints, not on their number of complaints.
King suggests contacting them if you have a similar complaint.
For her part, Dugan wishes she had never gotten involved in the drawing in the first place.
“I wish we could put a stop to this and they would quit taking advantage of people like me because I work hard for my money and I don’t want to throw it away for nothing and this is literally nothing,” she said.
So far no government authorities in Pennsylvania have gotten involved in looking at consumer complaints about Sundance.
But the State Attorney General in New Jersey investigated cases there and entered an agreement with Sundance prohibiting them from telling anyone they had won a prize or requiring them to do anything to claim it.