Dubai: All it took was three things — mobile number, lucky draw and free vacation — for unsuspecting middle-income couples to enter into a deal which they said they had been "pressured" into "unfairly".
"They told us ‘This is Vacation International. Sir, please fill out this form and we have a lucky draw. If you are the winner, we will call you'," Pinky Khatai, a housewife, told Gulf News.
Pinky and her husband Niranjan were in a shopping mall in Dubai at that time. And because they didn't have to pay anything to qualify for the draw that could give them a free holiday in Egypt, they obliged. Not long after, they received a call to say they had "won".
But in order to claim their prize, the couple was asked to attend a 90-minute presentation in their office in Deira.
Three hours later, and after three different sales persons and managers explaining the business concept of time-share to them, Niranjan found himself swiping his credit card for a Dh16,000 first payment for ‘free' hotel accommodation packages abroad. The earlier free holiday prize was nowhere in sight.
Four more Dubai residents approached Gulf News complaining against the same company. One of them claimed he unwittingly lost Dh19,950 in March for the same deal. He said he was promised a money-back guarantee should he decide to forego the deal.
"He [sales agent] offered me both kinds of things — investment cum entertainment," Kashyap Dave, a regional sales manager, said.
The 90-minute presentation went on for two hours. At the time, Dave claimed that he did not want to enter into the deal, but the environment where they were being pitched the business concept somehow "pressured" him to sign.
"I don't know how they created such an environment, like everyone was sitting and they were showing me credit card slips that a guy has paid; so this is a one-time offer. But keeping in mind that Dubai laws and everything are very strict and nobody can do such things very openly, my trust was very high. I blindly entered into it," Dave said.
The next day, Dave and the Kathai couple went through the contract and realised that all the verbal promises made during the presentation were contrary to conditions in the contract.
"Dh16,000 is a huge amount. Monetarily [speaking], I have to suffer for a few months," Niranjan, who also has a bank loan, said.
"It has really affected me, our daily life with lots of stress and unnecessary follow-ups, unnecessary tension," Niranjan said, referring to his pregnant wife who had to visit Vacation International's office several times to lodge their complaint.
"They were all fraud-like, cheating innocent people and they're playing with innocent people's hard-earned money," Dave said.
Gulf News spoke with Vacation International's assigned representative Mohammad Serry to seek their side on the issue. In a previous interview, Serry denied that their kiosks in the malls hold raffle draws but only give out "gifts" of a six-day, seven-night free stay in Egypt with a pre-condition of a 90-minute presentation.
Serry also denied all allegations of fraud. "It [non-refundable stamp] is in three languages, it's on a red colour. Do you think that this guy [client] did not see this stamp on this page? The client will come to sign [the contract] with the stamp [saying] that yes, I'm aware this is non-refundable. And we are writing it on the paper which we will give to him to find again that it is non-refundable," Serry clarified.
"If you [client] have any objection, you can go to police, court, whatever you like. But at the beginning, we are ready to negotiate any problem with the customer," Serry added.
Serry pointed out that his company is not an investment firm, but a travel agency.
"We are working in the tourism [industry]. We are doing travel. There is no investment. If you want to make an investment, it means you are investing in your travel and in your holidays," he said.
According to their trade licence in the Department of Economic Development (DED), Vacation International is licensed for ‘renting of residential units on time-sharing basis' and not as a travel agency, as Serry stated.
A DED official, who could not be named, told Gulf News, "We have been receiving a lot of complaints against Vacation International. They are reportedly cheating people."
In the UAE what holds weight is the written contract and not the spoken word. Hence, caution should be exercised prior to signing any document, Mohammad Lootah, Deputy CEO, Commercial Compliance and Consumer Protection in DED, said.
"People should read any contract carefully before they sign it since written contracts are official," Lootah said.
"No one can be pressured to sign a contract in Dubai, and if they were pressured, they could approach the courts since it is a legal issue," he added.
For the complainants, Lootah urged them to file their complaints with their department. "DED will always be ready to receive any consumer complaint and resolve it as per existing laws and regulations."
Lootah also warned people to be wary of business gimmicks such as lucky draws. "There is no such thing called ‘lucky draws', and any raffle draw in Dubai should be permitted and monitored by the Department of Economic Development."
No to instant rewards
Mall goers and residents should be wary of instant rewards offered to them by strangers, Steve Gregory, a Dubai-based financial adviser, said.
"There is never a free lunch, everything has a price. Attending any seminar may mean attending a sales presentation," Gregory said.
Middle-income families, Gregory said, are the usual targets as they are easily caught up in the fear of losing the free holiday. Gregory added that the desire for the expected profits could also drive them to shell out their money unwittingly. "You catch a fish with bait. These conmen know exactly how to bait the hook," he added.