If you’re a holiday-club member who owns points, as opposed to timeshare, and you no longer want the points for whatever reason, send a letter to the club stating that you are relinquishing your points and cancelling your membership.
It’s that simple, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
You can’t be forced to belong to any club, and you can’t be bound by a lifetime contract of any sort. The issuing of “in-perpetuity” (never-ending) contracts by the peddlers of points is just one of the practices that the National Consumer Commission (NCC) considered unfair when, in June last year, it applied to the National Consumer Tribunal to declare it, along with the other practices, “prohibited conduct” under the Consumer Protection Act (CPA).
The fact is that lifetime contracts have never been legal in terms of South African common law. In other words, consumers have always had the right to get out of such contracts, even if they entered into them before the CPA became fully effective in April 2011.
The CPA comprehensively addresses the cancellation of contracts. In brief, it says:
• The maximum period for a fixed-term contract is 24 months;
• Before you enter into a contract, a supplier must disclose its cancellation policy to you;
• You can cancel any fixed-term contract by giving the service provider 20 business days’ notice in writing at any time during the contract;
• You can be charged a “reasonable” cancellation fee; and
• The cancellation fee cannot have the effect of negating your right to cancel.
For many years, consumers who couldn’t sell their worthless points or take a holiday at a destination of their choice have considered themselves shackled to their club. When the NCC launched its case against two big players in the points business – Univision, the holding company of Quality Vacation Club (QVC), and Club Leisure Group (CLG) – consumers became excited at the prospect of being released from the clutches of their club. But their hopes were dashed in November last year, when the NCC withdrew its cases against both. There has been deafeningly silence from the NCC since.
The clubs, however, have been busy trying to persuade lifetime members to convert to fixed-term contracts.
The sales teams of QVC and CLG are marketing supposedly CPA-compliant offerings, but it is typically a contract of anything from seven to 20 years, in the case of CLG.
According to the CPA, if a supplier wants you to enter into a contract longer than 24 months, it must be able to prove to you that the longer term is financially beneficial to you, the consumer. But even if the supplier can prove this, it doesn’t negate your right to cancel the contract at any time on 20 business days’ notice. And you certainly don’t have to opt for a “restructure option”, or “prove” that you can’t afford the membership, before you are allowed to cancel, as one QVC member has been told.
The member is a 61-year-old widow from Johannesburg. In 1997, her husband bought timeshare – as in shares in a share-block company, which gave the couple one week at a particular resort.
“In 2001, QVC informed us that the share block had gone bankrupt and that QVC was offering us holiday points in exchange for our shares. Because our chalet was a big one, we could have as many as 130 points.” The couple accepted the offer. At the time [in 2001], the management fee was R2 500 a year. It is now R11 286 a year.
Since her husband died in 2014, Mrs H has not wanted to take holidays at timeshare resorts. “It’s painful for me. I also need to reduce my expenses and change my lifestyle.”
She has been trying to cancel her contract since December last year, and has lodged a complaint with the NCC.
In response to one of her letters attempting to cancel her membership, QVC says she must “please note you have entered into a normal credit agreement linked to terms and conditions applicable to both parties concerned. The membership of the association is for the duration of the association; therefore we cannot just cancel your agreement. Kindly be advised that the onus falls upon the member to resell privately on platforms such as OLX, Gumtree, Junkmail, etc, etc. You also have the option to transfer the portfolio to a friend or family member.”
It beggars belief that clubs are still sending members letters such as this.
In another letter from QVC to Mrs H, she is informed that her request for cancellation has been referred to a “review committee, who is the board of directors [sic]” and that “certain documentation is required as proof that you can no longer afford or make use of the portfolio”. Attached to the letter is a document titled “Monthly income and expenses (budget)”, which requires her to itemise her income and expenses.
Last month, Mrs H contacted attorney Stephen Logan, the author of the Law Society of South Africa’s Guide to the CPA. He advised her to persist in exercising her right to cancel her membership, by inviting the club to issue a summons for her alleged failure to pay the management fee for this year and/or to enforce a credit agreement that does not exist. When Mrs H did so, she received a letter from QVC stating that, “as a portfolio owner, you are under obligation to take such an offer [to reduce her “portfolio” to 50 points], but if your wish is to cancel your portfolio, you will need to send a written request to review@email@example.com.”
She has sent her “request” to the review committee and will ignore its response in the hope of a date in court. Logan says clubs on the wrong side of the law cannot afford to go to court, because an unfavourable judgment would set a precedent and their game would be up.
This column was sent to Univision for a response. Janet Hattingh, the senior supervising officer in the consumer compliance department at Univision, says the section of the CPA that deals with cancellation of contracts doesn’t apply to trusts, and Mrs H’s points are held in a trust.
That may be so, but there is nothing stopping the trust from transferring the points to a natural person who can, in turn, cancel the contract. At the end of the day, the fact remains: you can’t be forced to be a member of a club. It’s really that simple.
Logan advises consumers who want to cancel such contracts to join, or form, a holiday-club-point-cancellation support group on a social media site such as Facebook or Twitter, because the bullying tactics employed by holiday-point companies often leave consumers feeling intimidated and even threatened.
Interestingly, last week Mrs H received an email from Fikile Ntuli, the director of the complaints-handling unit at the NCC, in response to the complaint she lodged with the NCC against the club. The letter states that the NCC has undertaken to establish a public inquiry into the entire industry “and not individual entities”.
Ntuli’s message says: “The inquiry, as compared to an investigation, would be conducted by a panel of experts that would examine the entire vacation ownership industry, and come up with recommendations. The process would be opened for public participation and institutions for evidence-gathering purposes. Upon completion, the said recommendations would inform the direction to be taken in addressing all the issues raised against the industry.”
I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were you. If you want out, cancel the contract.