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How to avoid gym membership scams in the new year

A BBB of West Michigan manager recommends knowing the cancellation process in advance.

GRAND RAPIDS CHARTER TOWNSHIP, Mich. — 2020 marks a fresh start to those embarking on their New Year fitness resolutions. Many are flocking to the gym and signing up for memberships, but the Better Business Bureau (BBB) of West Michigan said it's important to pay close attention when it comes to signing onto contracts and memberships.

"What you really need to do when you’re looking for a gym membership is know what that cancellation policy is," said BBB of West Michigan Communications Manager Troy Baker. 

"Can you walk in and cancel on the spot? Do you have to email someone? Is there a phone call that has to be made? Does it need to be made in writing? Know what that process is and how much in advance you have to do it, and it will save a whole lot of headaches when you sign up," Baker said. 

He said fitness center scams have been a serious issue in the past few years but said complaints have slowed down since the attorney general got involved.

"It was constant. We were getting a lot of complaints that had to do with trying to quit your membership. It's actually slowed down since the main bad actor in West Michigan has kind of straightened up," he said.

In 2017, the West Michigan-based gym chain Family Fitness came under fire after, then, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette filed a class action lawsuit against Family Fitness accusing the chain of unlawful business practices. 

Schuette said the company was misleading members into believing they must make certain monetary payments after they canceled their gym contracts. 

In 2019 Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel announced Family Fitness would be forced to pay $220,000 in fines for violating the Consumer Protection Act. 

Read more: After nearly 300 complaints, AG Bill Schuette files lawsuit against Family Fitness

A class action lawsuit against Family Fitness has been filed in Kent County Circuit Court after several issues with patrons.

The complaint asks the Court to put a stop to various practices by the fitness chain that allegedly violates Michigan's Consumer Protection Act. It also seeks monetary relief on behalf of consumers.

When asked about why customers find themselves stuck in costly gym memberships or contracts, Jeff Phillips, owner of Grand Rapids City Gym, said there are unfair cases of misinformation in the fitness world.

"I think it’s an easy place to take advantage of people because it’s a vulnerable spot. I think fitness and physique, people tie that to their self-esteem and that kind of stuff, so it’s a vulnerable place, and it’s horrible when people try to capitalize on that vulnerable place and make money off that," he said.

RELATED: Family Fitness forced to pay $220,000 for customer violations

Phillips said his gym has done away with contracts, saying he wants to "simplify the usual hang-ups for people."

"I think it's important for people to try [the gym] and to see what they think and feel it out first...I think a gym can be an intimidating place sometimes if you're new to it," he said.

Phillips' advice to first-time gym-goers is to read the fine print and find out what the company stands for.

"Know what you’re committing to before you get into those contracts. What are the fundamentals of the gym? What are they trying to be? Are they a gym that’s trying to make money, or is it a gym that’s trying to get people fit and healthy?" he said.

Baker, the BBB of West Michigan Communications Manager, agreed urging customers to take their time making an educated decision.

"Don’t fall for that high-pressure sales tactic where they’re rushing you through signing the paperwork. If you can’t have time to sit down and read it, that’s probably not the place you want to go," he said.

Baker said an easy way to find out if a gym is right for you is to utilize the BBB's website and search for reviews and business history.

"Look up the gym on our website, you’ll be able to see what kind of rating they have, what kind of complaints they have, what kind of reviews they have and get an idea [of the place]," he said.

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