Washington area consumers once again are worrying about health and fitness centers, trying to find out which ones are likely to remain open and which ones are likely to shut down, leaving them with unused memberships.
"They want to know which ones are bonded and they want to know what to check on before joining," said Jennifer Dean of the Consumer Protection Commission for Prince George's County.
Judy Doctor of the Montgomery County Office of Consumer Affairs said consumers calling her agency have been asking about maintenance fees and renewal fees for lifetime membership. And Max Abraham, an investigator for the Alexandria Office of Consumer Affairs, said his callers have been asking about the options for members whose club has closed.
Officials think this latest round of calls was triggered by club membership promotions and a series of public service warnings about unregistered clubs.
Earlier this year, when the Barbara Ellen Fitness Centers closed, the Prince George's agency handled an estimated 1,000 phone calls from residents seeking help in getting their money back or the balance of their membership honored at some other club. Other consumer agencies in Virginia and the District also were swamped with requests from women who had been Barbara Ellen members.
Since then, several more health and fitness clubs have gone out of business, including one that had agreed to accept Barbara Ellen members' unused memberships. That was the Northern Virginia Athletic and Aquatic Club in Alexandria, which shut its doors on Aug. 21.
Of the three jurisdictions, Virginia offers the least protection to consumers buying health club memberships. Maryland offers the most, and the District falls between the two.
So if you live or work near a Maryland fitness club, you probably would be better off looking into a membership there than in the District or Virginia, consumer officials agree. But even in Maryland, officials say it's essential to check on club compliance with bonding requirements. In addition, you should call local consumer offices for information on complaints that may have been filed against the club and on its record of dealing with those complaints.
In the meantime, here is a summary of local laws:
Maryland: Under a requirement that took effect July 1, Maryland fitness clubs must register with the attorney general's consumer protection division. To complete that registration, the club must post a $50,000 bond if it sells contracts of three months or more and requires members to pay more than three months' dues in advance. Clubs that sell contracts of three months or less can apply for an exemption from the $50,000 posting requirement.
If the club is bonded and goes out of business, consumers then may seek a refund by placing a claim on the firm's bond or other assets. But consumers probably won't recover anything if their club isn't bonded.
The attorney general's office says only a fraction of the estimated 150 health clubs in the state have completed the registration process in the two months since the requirement became law. But many now are in the process of registering and should complete it soon. Information on whether a spa has been registered and bonded is available from the Maryland State Consumer Protection Division at (301) 528-8662.
In addition, Maryland law provides the consumer with the right to cancel a health spa contract and get a full refund within three business days after signing the contract, if the request is made in writing and made by either certified or registered mail or in person. The consumer also can cancel and get a refund if the spa specifies an opening date in the contract and then fails to open on schedule.
District: Since April 1976, the District has required that health clubs post a bond when they sell memberships prior to opening and for three months after opening. However, after those three months are up, the club doesn't have to maintain a posted bond.
Consumers can cancel a contract within 15 days of signing, but they will owe 5 percent of the contract price, not to exceed $25. In exchange, they are entitled to one month's use of the spa. For more information about your rights as a member of a D.C. fitness center, call consumer protection at 727-7080.
Virginia: Since Virginia has no health spa law to protect consumers from losses in event of a club closing, it's up to the individual to try and protect himself, consumer officials say. "You should take the same precautions that you take when entering any agreement," said Gloria Kornasiewicz of the Fairfax Office of Consumer Affairs.