By MATT BLOIS
Chuck McDowell has been fighting timeshare resorts for more than a decade. He runs a business called Wesley Financial whose sole goal is getting people out of timeshare contracts.
For an upfront fee, his company will persistently call and send letters to timeshare companies until they cancel a client’s contract.
“We do it the old fashioned way. We write letters. We put pressure on the resorts. Each resort has different pressure points,” he said.
McDowell said he invented the industry after he quit selling timeshares for Wyndham Vacation Resorts about 11 years ago because he wanted to help vulnerable people deceived by timeshare companies.
Since then, dozens of unscrupulous competitors have popped up across the country. A report from a Better Business Bureau of Eastern & Southwest Missouri & Southern Illinois warns customers to avoid timeshare exit companies completely.
The report — which doesn’t mention Wesley Financial — describes a group of timeshare exit companies in Missouri that took customers’ money, but didn’t get them out of timeshare contracts.
Now, in addition to fighting with timeshare resorts, McDowell is trying to prove he operates a responsible company that can deliver on its promises in an industry where deception is the norm.
McDowell sold time shares for Wyndham Hotels and Resorts between 2007 and 2008. He said he and other sales representatives deceived customers by describing the purchase as an investment, implying it will increase in value over time.
In reality, timeshares are more like a car. They decrease in value as soon as you drive them off the lot, and require a lot of maintenance.
“If you buy a $100,000 Wyndham timeshare today you can’t sell it for a dollar tomorrow,” he said.
Timeshares are essentially contracts that allow consumers to share the cost of a vacation home or hotel room. Owners are guaranteed time at the property at some point during the year. Timeshare sales representatives have a reputation for using aggressive tactics to pressure customers into buying a product.
After McDowell left Wyndham, friends started offering him money to get them out of time share contracts.
“That started a war. I was going to say an industry, but that started a war,” McDowell said. “I’ve been at war for almost 11 years now.”
The war appears to be lucrative. McDowell wears gold jewelry and a snakeskin belt. He has a putting green and a full golf bag in his office as well as a gigantic $3,000 desk. Behind the desk he has a mini-fridge stocked with cans of Coca-Cola.
Outside his office, dozens of sales representatives in cubicles take calls from people hoping to cancel their timeshares. A TV displays how many of those calls are turning into clients.
On the other side of the office, a group of employees work to cancel timeshare contracts by calling resorts. Labels on the outside of the cubicles identify which resort the employee specializes in. One worker displays a sign reading “Not today Wyndham” — a reference to the phrase “Not today Satan.”
Wesley Financial’s website is filled with testimonials from happy customers, and the Better Business Bureau has given the company an A+ rating.
Those glowing reviews are in stark contrast with the report published by the Better Business Bureau describing the state of the industry around Branson, Miss., which has a high concentration of timeshare resorts.
The report notes that, like McDowell, the owners of many timeshare exit companies in Missouri came from the timeshare industry. According to the report, many carried over high-pressure sales tactics into the new business.
Don O’Brien, a Better Business Bureau investigator who worked on the report, said customers should be wary of companies that ask for an up-front payment, rather than placing the money in an escrow account.
“A lot of these companies take up front payments before they do any work for the consumer,” he said. “Sometimes no work is done, sometimes very little work is done.”
Wesley does charge customers upfront, but advertises a full refund if the company can’t get clients out of timeshare contracts within three years. The Better Business Bureau report warns that many disreputable companies offered the same promise.
In Missouri, clients paid $4,000 to $5,000 on average to get out of a timeshare contract. McDowell said his rates vary from case to case, but some clients pay that much or more. He mentioned cases that cost $25,000.
O’Brien acknowledged that the Missouri study focused on the worst companies — most had a F rating with the Better Business Bureau compared to Wesley Financial’s A+ rating — and he wasn’t familiar with Wesley Financial.
Still, he encouraged timeshare owners who want out of contracts to work directly with timeshare companies, rather than contracting with a third party.
Several years ago, those contracts were extremely difficult to get out of, but he said bad publicity has pressured timeshare companies to update their cancellation policies.
“I don’t think it’s as difficult or impossible as it used to be,” he said. “Those front-end sellers, more and more of them have their own exit programs … I think a lot more people are having success with that.”
While the Better Business Bureau is skeptical of the timeshare exit industry, it’s at least equally suspicious of the timeshare industry itself. Another report from the Better Business Bureau in Missouri found that consumers lost thousands of dollars because of high pressure pitches.
The Better Business Bureau gave Wyndham Vacation Ownership a lukewarm C+ rating, and lists thousands of customer complaints.
Resort companies are also coming after timeshare-exit businesses in court. McDowell’s former employer, Wyndham Vacation Resorts, sued him in 2010 for stealing trade secrets and interfering with the company’s business.
A jury decided those claims weren’t true in 2012. That same year, Wyndham sued McDowell again for similar allegations, and he decided to settle.
In addition to the lawsuits, timeshare resorts and timeshare exit companies have started battling each other through press releases, trying to discredit the other side.
In a 2018 press release, Wyndham cheered the disbarment of Nashville area lawyer Judson Phillips. The Tennessee Supreme Court disbarred Phillips in part because of complaints that his timeshare cancellation business took payments from customers and didn’t complete the work.
In May, a group called Coalition to Reform Timeshare celebrated the dismissal of a case where Wyndham accused a timeshare exit company of false advertising.
The lawsuits, press releases and dubious business practices common in the industry have made it hard for McDowell to prove he’s one of the good guys.
“The name timeshare is not in the name of the company because it’s hard to open a checking account with the word timeshare in your business name,” he said.
One of the ways Wesley Financial tries to show that is by screening clients. The company only accepts people who have been lied to or have a good chance of cancelling the contract.
That means the success rate is very high. McDowell claims there are only a handful of cases where the company failed to cancel a contract.
Wesley Financial has also started its own marketing effort to push back against the perception of fraud in the timeshare exit industry. The company has an ad in AARP magazine. While the cost is high, McDowell thinks it’s starting to work.
“In the very beginning I don’t think people looked at me, or Wesley Financial, as a legitimate business. People were skeptical,” he said. “Everything in the timeshare business is a scam … Anything we can do for credibility is mandatory in this business.”