By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
You're driving the 110-mile, high-speed burn from Dallas to Flint, Texas, with visions of gold in your mind. OK, maybe not gold, but at least enough cash to pay that exorbitant TXU Gas bill that hit you like Ray Lewis earlier this month.
As you pass the junk shops and the doublewide serving as Frank's Museum of McDonald's Memorabilia, you reflect on what you're doing, why you're here. It all started a few weeks ago, when you filled out that sweepstakes entry form at the State Fair of Texas. You scribbled down your address and phone number, figuring someone had to win the $50,000 cash grand prize. Not long afterward, you received a certified letter saying you were, in fact, a "major prize winner" of either $500 cash, $700 in vacation vouchers, or the whole enchilada, $50,000 cash money. The letter instructed you to dial an 800 number to confirm receipt of your letter. No other details were given.
So you called. The person on the other end congratulated you: You're a winner, and you're guaranteed a big prize! You were psyched. You'd never won anything in your life.
It wasn't until the end of the conversation that you were told to claim your prize in Tyler, Texas. Oh, and you'll have to take a 90-minute tour of a time-share first. But what the hey. When all is said and done, you'll be at the very least $500 richer.
So you set an appointment.
For the next three or so days, you were bugged each evening by telemarketers from Dallas-based Silverleaf Resorts, who made you promise you were really going to show up. They offered little other information, and certainly did not mention the hundreds of complaints filed against Silverleaf with the Texas Attorney General's Office, the Texas Real Estate Commission, and the Dallas Better Business Bureau, alleging everything from telephone harassment and bait-and-switch sales tactics to poorly maintained cabins and deceptive claims.
The hustle is on.
So here you are, burning down Interstate 20. One thing's for sure: You're not going to the Villages resort near Tyler because you've been seized by a sudden, urgent desire to buy a time-share in the middle of nowhere. No, this is all about cash.
But when you get there, the place looks lovely: rows of cabins nestled among lush pine forest, flanked by pristine Lake Palestine. Your tour will eventually take you to a nicely furnished cabin, complete with doilies, quilt-covered beds, and a champagne chiller. Later on, when you get up close, you'll notice the cabins are little more than two-by-sixes and drywall: cheap, almost shoddy structures erected on a former campground. The cabins vary in quality and comfort, though, and the Presidential Suites, about two miles away, resemble luxury homes. From the multi-leveled suites overlooking the lake to the cheesy bungalows built on stilts and stuck in the woods next to trash bins overflowing with empty Budweiser cases, the 20-year-old Villages resort was built to house vacationers of all budgets. There's a place for you.
Now you sit for a while, in a rustic waiting room with a blazing fire. You watch salespeople congregate at the reception table, huddled close together and whispering. Finally, after 30 minutes of waiting, one of the salespeople breaks free from the pack and greets you. He or she is nicely dressed, a slick dress shirt and tie combination for the men, complemented nicely by a leather jacket, and slacks or suits for the women. One of them calls your name, and you're whisked away to the selling floor.
You enter a room with dozens of tables, surrounded by people like yourself: hard-working folks of all ethnic backgrounds and elderly couples trying to capitalize on some easy money. There's lots of FUBU gear, and some men wearing white T-shirts, their beer bellies stretching the cotton. When you take the family on vacation, you don't stay at the Four Seasons. It's usually a Best Western or a Holiday Inn. For others, it's a camper or RV. You've been lured by the promise of cash--and the opportunity to save tens of thousands of dollars over the years on vacations, if you're willing to spend just a little now.
The salesperson seats you, then asks to see your prize voucher. He or she acts surprised, eyes widening as if your letter is unique. A verification number on your voucher tells whether you won cash, yet your salesperson is 99 percent sure that you've won vacation vouchers. Make that 99.98 percent: That's the proportion of major prizewinners, according to Silverleaf, who win $700 family vacation vouchers that are essentially of no value unless you're willing to bankroll your own trip, hotel and all, to a Silverleaf resort location, and use one voucher per day on recreational activities. At the Villages, you can go fishing, though you'll have to buy your own bait and rent your own boat, or you can lounge by the pool and play tennis or miniature golf. This is the prize you're going to win. But you don't know this yet, and your salesperson isn't inclined to tell you now, since he's working on commission. So the sales pitch comes first.