PITTSFIELD -- The state Attorney General's Office has sued a discount travel business that was originally located in Pittsfield and its affiliates for allegedly misleading consumers with membership sales.
Attorney General Martha Coakley has also obtained a court order prohibiting Berkshire Concepts from violating the state's consumer protection laws, and is seeking $278,000 in damages, including $108,000 in restitution costs for 25 victims.
The lawsuit was filed in Suffolk Superior Court in Boston. Berkshire Concepts, Netrate Concepts, their affiliate, CRW Marketing of Yarmouth, and the two companies owners, Charles R. Whiteman of Dennis and Daniel Merritt of Pittsfield, are listed as co-defendants in the complaint. T.D. Bank, N.A. is listed as a trustee defendant. CRW Marketing and at least one other defendant maintain accounts at TD Bank, according to the complaint.
Berkshire Concepts has also gone by the name Netrate Concepts. The websites for both companies contain identical information.
According to the complaint, the defendants allegedly used high pressure sales tactics to offer consumers free travel incentives and extreme discounts on travel, but instead charged consumers thousands of dollars for access to a "proprietary software" database that failed to provide the promised discounts.
The Attorney General's office last week obtained a preliminary injunction that prohibits the defendants from violating the state's consumer protection laws, including advertising "free" travel that requires customers to pay taxes and fees, advertising access to nonexistent "wholesale" travel discounts, and holding consumers to a three-day cancellation period when consumers have not yet receive access to companies' website.
In December, the Better Business Bureau of Central Massachusetts in Worcester announced that it had received 29 reportable complaints against Berkshire Concepts since April 2011. The BBB's coverage area includes Berkshire County.
Also in December, the state Attorney General's Office reported receiving 31 complaints against Berkshire Concepts, and two complaints against Netrate Concepts, between 2007 and 2013.
In Connecticut, the Department of Consumer Protection issued a consumer alert against Berkshire Concepts in October 2011 after residents of that state received promotional postcards from the company that contained the logos of airlines that had no relation to the firm.
According to the complaint, Merritt is believed to reside in Pittsfield, but has also obtained licenses from the town of Pittsfield, Maine to operate both Berkshire Concepts, and Netrate Concepts, which are characterized as "software" businesses. Whiteman, the president, treasurer and secretary of CRW Marketing, has also represented himself as the owner of Berkshire Concepts, the complaint states.
Merritt could not be reached for comment.
In July, Berkshire Concepts notified the BBB of Central Massachusetts that it had been purchased by a new owner who had moved the business to North Carolina. But BBB spokeswoman Joanna Toomey said her agency also had received reports that Berkshire Concepts was operating out of Pittsfield, Maine.
Merritt's wife, Natalya Getman, had the couple's home in Pittsfield declared a legal homestead in April 2011, according to documents on file at the Middle Berkshire Registry of Deeds in Pittsfield. Under state law, a homestead declaration protects an owner's principal residence against attachment, seizure, execution on judgment, levy or sale for the protection of debts of up to $500,000 per residence, per family.
Getman is listed as the home's owner, according to Pittsfield city records. According to documents on file at the Registry of Deeds, Getman used a Maine driver's license as identification for the notary public who oversaw the filing of the homestead designation.
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