April 25, 2013

Hart's Athletic Clubs - The Long and Corrupt History of Fitness Clubs in Washington State

Washington State residents have suffered through a long history of corrupt athletic/fitness clubs that have committed numerous types of unlawful and illegal business practices. Since as long ago as 1994, the Washington State Attorney General has been going after athletic clubs for their fraudulent practices, behaviors that violate the state Unfair Business Practices Act, as described in this 1994 Seattle Times article (see link). That 1994 Seattle Times story stated in part that:

Most of the complaints aren't about fitness or exercise, but about sales, billing and collection practices that often leave health-club members without facilities - and in some cases without refunds - that they say they were promised.

The attorney general's office said it received 408 complaints about health clubs from January through August, a rate that would produce about 612 complaints for the full year. That would be 34 percent above the 457 complaints received through all of last year. Complaints totaled 465 in 1992.

One of the more notorious such clubs was the defunct Hart's Athletic Clubs, which were owned by Richard W. Hart of Bellevue, WA. Hart was infamous for his hard sell used car salesman style television commercials that advertised his facilities with too good to be true offers and deals. Eventually, after years of corrupt and illegal activities, Hart and his clubs signed a consent decree with the State Attorney General and agreed to pay $52,000 in attorneys fees and $250,000 in penalties after being sued by the state for systematic deceptive business practices.

In 1995, at that same time Hart Athletic Clubs was sued, three other Washington State athletic clubs were also sued by the State Attorney General, and all paid similar civil fines and attorneys fees to the state. One was a company called Four Corners Health Club that did business under the trade name LivingWell Lady. The other two were Bell-Fit, Inc., and Cascade Athletic Clubs. The LivingWell Lady franchise was eventually barred from doing business of any kind anywhere within Washington State. A brief 1996 Seattle Times story about the end of the LivingWell Lady saga is available here (see link).

The systemically corrupt practices those companies used to defraud customers resulted in the Washington State legislature enacting a set of statutes that require Athletic/Fitness Clubs in Washington State to operate within the rules that set of statutes defines. Unfortunately, even with the current statutes that restrict Athletic Club businesses in Washington State, most such businesses have continued to their unlawful and illegal business practices.

Twenty years later, it doesn't seem like much of anything has changed around the Puget Sound area, as fitness clubs like Seattle Executive Fitness, Vision Quest Fitness, and others, are using the same fraudulently deceptive business practices as part of their desperately illegal attempts to attract and retain customers. These unscrupulous businesses use a variety of illegal scams to bilk customers out of their hard earned money. One of the scams is to offer a prepaid membership and then charge customers monthly dues prematurely, so that the prepaid deal doesn't provide any savings at all. For example, multiple times over the course of various years Seattle Executive Fitness has advertised a - prepay for a full year and get two full years of membership. However, numerous members report that Seattle Executive Fitness illegally began charging them monthly dues after the end of the first year, in breach of the club's contractual obligation. Another scam that gym's use is to make membership cancellation as difficult as possible, and then continue charging customers after they've cancelled their memberships. A third scam might be dubbed the zombie membership, in which a club in conspiracy with ABC Financial, their billing processor, startup automatic debit/withdrawal of monthly dues from the account of member with a cancelled membership, hoping that in these days of debit cards nobody balances their checkbook or carefully studies monthly statements to notice the monthly fees being withdrawn illegaly, until months have gone by, and often hundreds of dollars have been stolen from the former customer's bank or credit card account. What these gyms don't seem to realize, is that once these customers and former customers become aware of the extent to which they've been financially victimized, they communicate their irate feelings to everyone they know, insuring that none of those people will ever make the mistake of getting involved with the predatory gym that stole from their friend.

Every gym member and prospect gym member should be aware that gyms and fitness trainers are both regulated by state statutory laws. However, most Washington State athletic clubs and athletic trainers appear to violate the state laws that regulate them with impunity. Washington State athletic/fitness clubs are called - Health Studio Services - under the set of state statutes that govern them, RCW Chapter 19.142. The Athletic Trainers which athletic clubs generally call Personal Trainers are called Athletic Trainers under state law and are regulated by RCW Chapter 18.250. Washington State gym members should get informed and be prepared for the various scams their gym is likely to try.

Links Related To This Article

Athletic Trainers - RCW Chapter 18.250

Health Studio Services - RCW Chapter 19.142

Related Seattle Times Articles

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