RICHMOND -- James Jones Jr. packed his family of four into the car for a three-hour drive to North Carolina for a little relaxation -- and to collect $20 worth of Susan B. Anthony coins.
All Jones, a Chesterfield County, Va., resident, had to do for the coins was sit through a 90-minute sales presentation at several time-share resort sites.
Jones got the money, but he says he'll never do it again. "The only way to escape those places is to be firm and hold your ground because they give you a very high-pressured sales pitch," he said.
One agent, armed with the family's credit history, even got openly hostile.
"She said, 'You can afford this and why don't you buy this?' She then got the manager who tried to twist our arms a little more," Jones said.
The Virginia Prizes and Gifts Act became law on July 1, 1989, said Betty Blakemore, director of the state Division of Consumer Affairs. In the year that it has been in force, the law has helped to curtail high-pressure practices by marketers and to ensure that unsuspecting consumers are given what they're promised, she said. "Virginia has one of the toughest, if not the toughest law," she said.
Time-share resorts and membership campgrounds sometimes try to lure potential buyers to their properties with promises of free vacations or expensive prizes.
"The biggest problem is the enticement to come," Blakemore said. "Most people who go to campgrounds or resorts or time shares really believe they have won a major prize. In most cases, it's a car. And that's a real drawing card."
But often they find when they've driven several hours to get there that they haven't won a car, but a consolation prize. In one case, the consolation prize was a television projection system. "The next line is, 'We don't have this here on the property because of space requirements, but we will ship it to you,'" Blakemore said. "There is an $89.95 shipping and handling charge.
"Now when they get it -- one of the consumers brought it into us -- what you're getting is a large piece of plywood and a magnifying glass that you set in front of your television set," she said. "And you've paid $89.95 for this or more."
Blakemore's office has assembled a collection of low-budget prizes that were offered to unsuspecting consumers. There's the collection of gem stones supposedly worth $1,500, which turned out to be glass with a retail value of $20.
One company offered a motorized boat, which was an inflatable rubber raft and a hand-held electric beater for a motor.
"You don't get something for nothing," said Tom Gallagher, president of the central Virginia office of the Better Business Bureau. "In Virginia, we were able to get a law that regulates the level of puffery."
The company must state the retail value of the prize being offered, what the chances of winning are and what you have to do to receive the gift. Any charge for shipping and handling of the prize cannot exceed $5.
If the company says you have won something, then they must send the prize within 10 days with no obligation, no shipping and handling, no visiting anywhere.
The fine is $1,000 for each violation. And mass mailings in which the promotion is in violation of the law could cost the company $1,000 for each letter sent, officials said.
Free prizes and vacations offered by time-share resorts is a relatively new concept, Gallagher said.
"It's a darn good way to get people out there. And once you get there, you're on their turf and you have to listen to their sales pitch. They let you know that.
"But the First Amendment gives us the right to say no," Gallagher said.
"If you're going to go because you want to purchase resort property or because you want to get a time share or because you want to buy a membership in a campground, you're going to go," Blakemore said. "You don't need the prize."
Offering prizes is just a marketing technique and there's nothing wrong with that if they're honest about it, she said.
"But people need to know what they're going to receive and they should get what they think they're going to get," she said.