Almost every day, married couples walk into Steve Cosgrove's travel agency and ask about free cruise and plane tickets in exchange for listening to a sales presentation. But Cosgrove and his staff not only tell them that they are in the wrong place but also warn them that they are going to the wrong place.
Couples see Cosgrove's Dynamic Travel sign outside his building in an upscale Southlake business park, but they are looking for Oasis Getaway, a 6-month-old travel club whose sales office is tucked in a hard-to-find corner of the campus.
Oasis Getaway sells club memberships for thousands of dollars to people who receive mailings offering free travel tickets.
Cosgrove noticed that the mailings displayed logos from well-known cruise companies in place of the company's own name and return address. The travel agent, whose company has been in business for 30 years, says he complained to three cruise lines. Each ordered Oasis to stop.
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After I described an Oasis Getaway sales presentation I attended with my wife (couples are required) in a recent Watchdog column, Cosgrove hung the column on his office wall. Now when couples come to the wrong place, Cosgrove says, he shows them the column and says, "Watch your wallet."
For this, Cosgrove received a warning letter from a law firm hired by Oasis Getaway's owners. "Dynamic's premeditated defamation and disparagement has already caused significant monetary losses to Oasis," Dallas lawyer Delwin E. Hervey wrote to him.
Cosgrove says he isn't doing anything wrong.
Hervey, general counsel for Oasis, told me the travel club has many benefits and operates in full compliance with Texas laws. His favorite benefit, he said, is that "clients are able to vacation in one-, two- or three-bedroom condos at discounted rates" of $199 to $999 a week.
Oasis customer Tim Haitz of Southlake told me that he joined but couldn't book the trips he wanted. He spent six hours on the phone trying to book a vacation to "basically any place warm with palm trees."
He added, "We were shooting for November, then December, and finally January." He ended up buying his trip package from another company.
Since his cancellation period had passed, he struggled to terminate his $4,000 membership and get a refund.
But Haitz handled it masterfully. First, he complained to his credit card company, which put a hold on the charge. Then he complained to the Texas attorney general's office. Five months after his sales session, he received a full refund.
Lawyer Hervey says the company's contract allows each customer to cancel within the first five days and receive half of his or her money back.
Customer Chad Gibson of Roanoke told me that after he paid $3,300, he tried to book trips but the travel dates and restrictions were too severe. He said that the sales session was high-pressure and that the staff led him to believe that he could plan his trips well in advance.
Later, he said, he discovered that the best deals were for trips less than two weeks away. He said he was also told that the program offered discounts at hotels nationwide, but he discovered only limited choices.
Three months after his purchase, Gibson continues to negotiate for a refund.
The company lawyer says that if anyone has a problem, "please let me know who they are so that Oasis Getaway can investigate their claim."
Oasis lists only two top executives or "managers" on its Texas incorporation papers. One is Thanh "Tony" Q. Nguyen, 43, a Dallas-area businessman who the company lawyer says "enjoys working in the industry and helping Oasis Getaway's clients and their families take vacations that they might otherwise not afford."
Nguyen did not respond to a written request for an interview.
The other manager listed with the Texas secretary of state is Linh C. Dinh, 40, who has homes in Las Colinas and in Duluth, Ga. He owns other travel clubs and has been in business for more than a decade.
Dinh's largest company is Vacation Network. It used to operate in Houston and Austin, but its state business license expired last month, records show. Vacation Network also operated out of Arizona and Nevada from 2008 to 2010 but lost its business licenses in those states, too.
Dinh declined an interview request.
Dinh is listed as owner of his other companies but as manager for Oasis. Hervey says Oasis "is an independent business entity and has no connection with Vacation Network."
No connection -- except for Dinh serving as a top officer for both.
Vacation Network has had troubles. In 2007, Dinh settled charges of trade and commerce violations in Georgia, agreeing to pay $160,000 in penalties and $35,000 in costs, state records show.
The Georgia Office of Consumer Affairs accused Dinh's companies of misleading customers about the location of travel destinations, not allowing refunds and cancellations, asking customers to pay $249 for promised free tickets, lying to customers about how the business worked and using others' logos to indicate partnerships that did not exist.
The company denied the charges but agreed to pay the penalty.
On the complaint, Georgia authorities listed Vacation Network and three other companies for which Dinh is either owner or CEO: Augusta Reservations Systems, Premiere Vacation Systems and Vacation Reservation Systems. He signed the voluntary agreement. As part of that, 43 Georgia customers received refunds of $700 to $7,200.
The Watchdog column appears Fridays and Sundays.
Dave Lieber, 817-390-7043