Mainers trying to sell timeshare vacation units should be on the lookout for scammers intent on taking advantage of them.

“Timeshare resale scams happen to Mainers all over the state because people all over the state buy timeshares,” Tim Feeley, special assistant at the Maine attorney general’s office, said in a recent email.

The attorney general’s office has received 44 inquiries last year about timeshare sales scams, and it has been directly involved in trying to help five victims recoup lost money, Feeley said. Since many people do not report being scammed, the actual number of cases is probably much higher.

According to the senior advocacy organization AARP, scammers track down the names of timeshare owners who either have already listed their units for sale or are likely to be considering selling. Sometimes the sale is urgent, forced by the declining health or death of the owner. In other cases, owners are anxious to free themselves from an annual vacation commitment that seemed like a good idea when they bought their units but has since become burdensome and restrictive.

“We definitely did see a rise in people looking to resell their timeshare during the recent tough economic times,” AARP Maine spokeswoman Jane Margesson said in an email.

But she said there are many reasons people choose to move on from their timeshare commitment, including choosing to stay close to grandchildren or moving into assisted living.

Scammers are on the lookout for timeshare owners who are motivated to sell. Targeted owners are contacted by bogus companies or real estate agents claiming they have a buyer ready to make a deal or that units in their area in high demand. The agent may put the eager owner in direct contact with a supposed buyer, who confirms their interest. The agent then sends paperwork and demands money up front — sometimes several thousand dollars — for escrow, title services and fees. Once the money changes hands, the agent and buyer disappear, the deal evaporates, and the victim is left the poorer.

Scammers sometimes take things even further. In some reported cases, a second fraudulent organization has contacted the victimized owner, promising to help track down and reclaim the lost money — for an upfront fee, of course. That money disappears as well. And some scammers have gone so far as to steal the identity of a bonafide real estate agent, giving them access to official documents, email accounts, and other means of looking legitimate.

These fraudulent individuals and organizations may appear very professional, AARP cautions, with impressive websites, paperwork and telephone communications. Sellers should resist being taken in by appearances, especially if they are promised a speedy sale or a large profit.

Timeshare properties are typically located in desirable vacation areas. Specifics vary, but buying a unit — usually a small apartment or condominium, but sometimes a single room or an entire cottage — means paying to have access to the same spot for the same week every year. Owners pay an annual maintenance fee and other costs, and they may be able to swap their week at their resort for another unit in a different location.

There are about two dozen timeshare resorts in Maine. A casual internet search turned up 216 individual units for sale, ranging in cost from $20 for a one-bedroom unit in the beach town of Wells in early December to $21,000 for a multi-week deal at the Grand Summit Resort Hotel at Sunday River in Newry. Many of these units may be owned by residents of other states, and many Mainers own timeshare units in other states and even other countries.

Feeley said many timeshare resorts work with unit owners to help them list and sell their units. Mainers who want to sell their timeshares should start by talking with resort managers, or else contact a reputable real estate broker. Be very suspicious if you are asked for money upfront; fees, commissions and other costs should be paid at the time of the sale, he said, not before.

“Never pay in advance for promises,” Feeley said.

In more generic advice to protect Mainers from being scammed, the attorney general’s office says you should never give out your credit card, bank account or other financial information to someone you don’t know who has initiated contact with you. Don’t be afraid to check out the Better Business Bureau or other sources to see of a company you’re dealing with is legitimate. And, as always, if the deal seems too good to be true, it probably is.

If you have been the victim of a scam, report it to the Consumer Protection Division of the Maine attorney general’s office at 800-436-2131 or consumer.mediation@maine.gov.

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Meg Haskell

Meg Haskell is a curious second-career journalist with two grown sons, a background in health care and a penchant for new experiences. She lives in Stockton Springs. Email her at mhaskell@bangordailynews.com.