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Holiday club fraud

Mark Mardell | 09:52 UK time, Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Marbella

Although we all know it's true, flying in from rainy Brussels or Britain it is almost unbelievable that there is somewhere a couple of hours away that is not just a bit warm, but scorching hot. A place where people stroll in beachwear under a palm-fringed promenade, before taking a bracing dip in the sea. Tourists doing tai chi on Marbella beach

There is temptation in paradise. People will take foolish risks to make sure they can return again and again.

The problems with fraudulent timeshares have been well advertised, but the latest scam is apparently holiday clubs. The idea behind them is explained in this brilliant little film by one victim:

"What happens is all the usual stuff with scratch cards and 'ooh you've won a star prize' and then a trip to an office in town for a gratingly long lecture on the glory of their product. Their pitch is that if a company gathers quite a bit of cash from lots of people then economies of scale means that they can sell luxury holidays at bargain basement prices... The trick is that after you've paid a vast deposit, er... nothing happens. No holiday. And you can't easily get your money back."

Two-thirds of the victims are British. One consumer group tells me they get about 40 phone calls of complaint a day and deal with around 10,000 cases a year. It is the biggest single area of complaint to European consumer groups, which really staggers me.

Walking down one of Malaga's main streets a lawyer who is taking on cases on behalf of ripped-off customers points out offices where the companies were based. When these companies are fingered he says they move on and tweak their official name and carry on much as before.

Damian Vazquez has formed Abogado to fight the abuses in the courts. He tells me "we get a lot of problems still because the law doesn't work here".

"The criminal justice system is slow dealing with fraud cases and it can take three or four years for it to come to court. I would like Brussels to give out more information and to stretch the time limit for getting out of any contract."

Although the European Parliament has passed legislation on timeshares, which sort of works, it voted overwhelmingly today in favour of new measures.

MEPs like the Conservatives' Malcolm Harbour and Labour's Arlene McCarthy have been pressing for a tightening of the law. It will ban up-front payments, introduce a standardised form all over the European Union, and extend the cooling-off period to two weeks. If buyers aren't given the standard form they will have the right to withdraw for three months and if they aren't told of the right to withdraw then it is extended for a year.

I'm looking for someone who thinks all this is a bad thing (and there may be some in today's debate), but haven't so far found them.

I know many of you disagree with the very idea of EU-wide laws. How would you deal with such cross-border scams? This is not a rhetorical "isn't the EU wonderful" question - I mean it seriously. What are the alternatives?

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