I got a robo-call to my cell phone the other day. Usually I ignore these things, but this one piqued my interest. The call was from a group calling itself “Political Opinions of America.org,” and it wanted my opinions about issues of the day. It promised to reward my survey participation with a nice payoff: A free two-day cruise for two to the Bahamas.
At this point all of the Scam Alert sirens went off in my head. So I decided to play along.
[UPDATE 01/10/17: The group has settled a $76 million class-action suite, and some of those called are eligible for a proposed settlement of at least $500.]
The automated survey asked five questions (what’s the most important issue in the 2012 election, where did I get the majority of my election news, how did I feel about the Keystone Pipeline, etc) and asked me to select from a series of multiple choice answers. At the end, it asked if I was interested in “reserving a free cruise to the Bahamas.” I pressed 1 for yes.
That brought me to a live operator, one Tracy Conner of Caribbean Cruise Lines (employee #UA239). Tracy was cheerful, friendly, and immediately asked for my cell number to “validate” my “survey code,” so I could qualify for the trip.
I said, “Didn’t you guys just call me? Don’t you already have my number?”
She replied that no, I was called by Political Opinions of America.org, which was sponsoring my cruise. She asked a number of other questions, gave me some details about the offer, and then informed me that my free trip would cost me $118 in port taxes. Also, I’d be on the hook for any alcohol consumed on the boat and any gambling losses I incurred.
She then asked for my credit card number. I declined. She asked why. I said, “I make it a firm policy to never give out my credit card number to anyone who has called me.” She said “We didn’t call you, Political Opinions of America.org called you.”
Then she put me on hold and passed me to her supervisor, Robert. He was just as unsuccessful in closing me, despite his protestations about how legitimate Caribbean Cruise Lines really was. Eventually they gave up.
It had the feel of a timeshare pitch, and checking the Better Business Bureau records for Caribbean Cruise Lines confirmed it. The BBB, which has logged nearly 1200 complaints about Caribbean Cruise Lines over the last three years and gives it a grade of D+, has this to say:
Our file contains a pattern of complaints from consumers who state they were contacted by this company and told they won a free three day two night cruise to the Bahamas. The only fees mentioned are the port fees in the amount of $59 per person. Some consumers state they are not told of additional fees or that they must attend a two hour timeshare presentation as a part of the agreement. Consumers report the timeshare presentation is very high pressure as well as high pressure sales to upgrade their cruise. Some consumers complain they were told they have 30 days to review the travel packet and cancel for a full refund. Requests for a refund result in rude customer service and a refusal to issue the refund as mentioned in the sales presentation.
Caribbean Cruise Lines (CCL) operates dozens of different promotional Web sites, including 2012getaway, BahamasGetawayCruise, Funcruiseforfree, and Freecruise4you. The company doesn’t actually operate any cruise ships, it’s just a high-pressure telemarketing boiler room operation. Legitimate travel companies like Celebration Cruises provide the actual trips.
Dan Askin of CruiseCritic has a nice rundown of the differences between the two companies. His take: CCL can be a cheap way to get to the Bahamas for a couple of days, if you don’t mind the relentless attempts to upgrade you to more expensive travel packages, the high-pressure time share sales pitch, and CCL’s questionable business tactics.
Political Opinions of America.org (POA) also has a Web site, but it’s so obviously fake it’s laughable. There is no actual information about the organization; no names of principals, executives, or clients; and no physical address. All the news links are all to Gallup Polls (Gallup spokesperson Alyssa Brown says the firms are not related in any way), and the contacts page doesn’t work at all. It’s a front.
Not surprisingly, the domains are registered anonymously.
Interestingly, the same day I got my robo-call FoxNews ran a story about this scam. This faux polling campaign is apparently the work of a company called The Berkley Group (aka Vacation Village Resorts), which specializes in – you guessed it – timeshare sales.
Via a spokeslawyer, the group claims its POA calls are legal because the Telephone Consumer Protection Act allows for political polling, even if your number is on the FTC’s Do Not Call Registry (as mine is).
Uncle Sam sees it somewhat differently. Fox quoted FTC spokesperson Frank Dorman:
“Businesses have to get your written permission before they can legally send you pre-recorded messages, even if your number is on the National Do Not Call Registry, and even if they have an established business relationship with you,” Dorman wrote FoxNews.com in an email. “If you get a robo-call from a company that hasn’t gotten your written permission first, it’s a scam, since no legal business wants to break the law and risk having to pay penalties of up to $16,000 per call.”
And while the Do Not Call rule carves out exceptions for legitimate political surveys, it doesn’t allow companies to use phony political surveys as an excuse for telemarketing.
Google any of the organizations in this post and you will find many stories of identical robo-calls with cruise line sales pitches attached. So it’s also not terribly surprising that the Boston law firm of Shapiro Haber & Urmy is looking into filing a class action suit against CCL and the Berkley Group for violating Do Not Call rules.
Gotten a call like this? The legal beagles at Shapiro want a word with you. And you should file a complaint with the FTC. I would definitely recommend not doing business with Caribbean Cruise Lines or Berkley Group/Vacation Village Resorts – unless you want to be cruisin’ for a bruisin.
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