There are hundreds of thousands of dissatisfied timeshare owners in the U.S., stuck in often lifetime contracts that are usually difficult or impossible to cancel. Many are elderly and have lost interest in traveling or the ability to do so. Many can no longer afford to continue paying unpredictably escalating maintenance fees. Some are dissatisfied by the deterioration of their facilities over time or are recent buyers who, having been victimized by high-pressure sales tactics, ended up with lifetime commitments of costly obligations to resorts they will rarely, if ever, use.

In the past six years or so, timeshare exit services have emerged, advertising heavily with promises to help owners eager to jettison their timeshares. But scores of these services have developed reputations for taking advantage of their customers. Many consumers have hired companies and, after paying expensive fees and years of waiting, found they’re still trapped in their timeshares; some find their credit damaged after being advised to stop paying annual maintenance fees.

Checkbook reviewed hundreds of timeshare-related customer complaints, lawsuits, ads, and marketing schemes, and interviewed timeshare owners and consumer advocates. We found a disturbing picture of a timeshare industry that uses deceptive selling practices to lure consumers into buying timeshares without understanding all the costs and complexities of ownership and then victimizes them again when they want to get rid of their properties.

Complaints about exit companies often make the same allegation: After consumers paid thousands of dollars upfront, the exit companies they hired strung them along for months or years, often with few or no updates about their cases. Some companies made misleading promises to sign on clients.

Although some of these firms satisfy many of their customers by successfully terminating their timeshare contracts, there’s a good chance their clients, with a little know-how, could have achieved the same result on their own for free or at little cost, rather than paying exit companies thousands of dollars.

Separately, timeshare owners are falling for sophisticated scams promising to help them get tens of thousands of dollars for their timeshares. The scammers then bleed victims by tricking them to send money to pay fake commissions, taxes, and other closing costs, often impersonating government officials, legitimate lawyers, resort and bank employees, real estate brokers, and others.