A San Francisco Superior Court jury awarded a former Wyndham Vacation Ownership employee $20 million in punitive damages Thursday for being fired after she exposed fraud targeting the elderly at the time-share company.
Trish Williams lost her job after opposing the practice of selling units seniors couldn’t afford and deceiving them about having their time-shares bought back, the jury found.
She had been working at the San Francisco office for 63 days and complained seven times about the scams before she was terminated in December 2010, Williams said.
“I was devastated,” Williams said. “ I couldn’t believe I was being terminated. I’ve never been written up, I’ve never had an owner complaint. I moved across the country for this job.”
Williams began working for a Wyndham vacation resort in Virginia in 2007. In 2010, she transferred to a Wyndham office in San Francisco as a sales representative. There, she discovered the use of deceptive sales practices, according to her complaint.
“We disagree with the verdict and intend to file an appeal,” said Adam Schwartz, a spokesman for Wyndham Vacation Ownership, a division of Wyndham Worldwide, in a statement to The Chronicle. “The allegations in this case were isolated to a single sales office years ago involving a small group of individuals who are no longer employed by the company, and are wholly inconsistent with both our values and business practices.”
Williams said her colleagues lied about rates, fees and the possibility of rental income. They also tricked customers, some in their 90s, into buying more time-share points by signing them up for credit cards and maxing out the cards without their knowledge, she said.
Williams said she saw a credit card bill for as much as $90,000. The average credit card bill for fraudulently purchased time-share points was $52,000, according to court documents.
“A lot of these couples had been owners (with Wyndham) for years,” said Williams. “They were vulnerable.”
Because of the trust owners had in the company, many didn’t review the documents they were signing, which included applications for credit cards, she said.
According to Williams, sales representatives promised owners that if they spent thousands of dollars on points, Wyndham would repurchase their points within a year in a “buyback program.” During the trial, her lawyers presented evidence that such a program did not exist.
When Williams discovered the alleged fraud, she reported it to an executive, who threatened to fire her. “Wyndham management knew of and condoned the widespread fraud because it was profitable,” her lawyers argued in a court filing.
A decision on an appeal can take another year, said Anne Costin, one of Williams’ attorneys.
“I’ve waited six years, I’ll wait as long as it takes,” Williams said. “My heart and soul is wrapped up in making sure this doesn’t happen to other people.”
Williams, who hired an attorney in August 2011, was joined by four other employees in her civil lawsuit against Wyndham. The others involved in the suit settled.
But for Williams, it was important to go to trial.
“If you don’t come before a jury, no one will ever know,” said Williams. “Everyone was trying to buy me off and shut me up, but I had nothing but faith for six whole years that this was going to turn out exactly how it was going to turn out.”
Since her termination, Williams has lived with family in Virginia Beach, where she works as a hostess at Cactus Jack’s Southwest Grill. She used to make $145 an hour as a sales representative, she said; she now earns $9 an hour.
Time-shares represent a partial interest in a vacation property. Some are sold as deeded property with the right to use a room or apartment for specific time periods. Some are sold as points exchangeable for stays in a variety of properties. Wyndham says it is the largest developer of points-based time-share properties. Lisa Ann Schreier, a director at the time-share Insights consultancy, says the points system is now more prevalent, but fraud can happen with any kind of time-share.
“You have to do your homework ahead of time,” said Schreier.
There were 1,547 time-share resorts in the United States in 2015, according to the American Resort Development Association. Sales increased from $7.9 billion in 2014 to $8.6 billion last year, according to the industry group.
Wyndham operates about 180 vacation ownership resorts, with more resorts in California than any other state, according to Williams’ complaint.