Over the years, health clubs have earned a notorious reputation for their aggressive, and often misleading, tactics to get new people to sign up for memberships.

The Internet is littered with blogs and posts venting anger and frustration from those who feel cheated by fitness clubs. Anyone who has signed up for a membership at a major health club chain knows that the sales people go to extremes to rope you into their offices and hold you captive until you sign a membership contract.

According to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, more than 41 million people belong to a health club in the U.S.  Despite millions of people flocking to them, fitness clubs, like every other business in America, are feeling the hurt from the economic downturn. Bally Total Fitness, for example, has filed for Chapter 11 protection twice in the past two years. Since many people ultimately cancel their memberships after realizing that they haven’t gone to the gym in years, health clubs are constantly looking for new members to replace the old ones.

Unfortunately, the need for fresh members causes some clubs to engage in less admirable business methods. Many of the major health club chains have earned poor grades from consumer rights’ groups and better business bureaus. According to the Better Business Bureau’s Web site, 24 Hour Fitness, the largest health club chain in the world, received more than 900 complaints involving improper collection practices, a failure to honor advertised prices and contract terms, and lousy customer service. It currently earns an “F” grade from the BBB.

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Gold’s Gym, another nationwide chain, also received a failing grade from the BBB site for similar complaints. Consumers have long complained that Bally uses misleading newspaper advertisements and false telephone solicitations to lure new membership. In 2004, Bally agreed to drastically change its sales and marketing policies to end an investigation into its business practices by the New York attorney general’s office. The office had received more than 600 complaints from consumers alleging deceptive ads and misrepresentation of membership costs.

A major complaint with health clubs is the vagueness of their cancellation policies. Once you’ve signed a contract, health clubs seem to go out of their way to make it as difficult as possible to cancel your membership. Some chains have complex notification and time-period policies, and most. Furthermore, trying to get someone from the cancellation department on the phone is like trying to reach the North Pole by hot air balloon—expect it to take a while. Long hold times are common and just one way health clubs discourage cancellations.

Health clubs consistently keep the consumer in the dark about their rights by failing to fully inform consumers of their cancellation policies, to provide comprehensive membership fee information and to permit customers to adequately review and consider membership contracts.

To protect consumers, states have enacted laws to regulate the industry.  Most statutes deal with common contract conditions and cancellation policies, such as automatic renewal procedures to prevent overcharging, “cooling off” periods that allow consumers to rethink their decision, mandatory bonding that protect against gym closures and even price caps on membership fees. Three states—Illinois, California and New York—have set maximum price caps on membership fees.

Make sure to contact your local consumer protection agency, BBB, or state attorney general to get up-to-date information on the laws in your state. If you feel that your health club violated the law by engaging in deceptive or unfair business practices, contact the club immediately to let it know about your dissatisfaction. If you are unable to get the issue resolved with the club, don’t hesitate to contact your local BBB to lodge a formal complaint.

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