It’s a classic come-on. You’re on your Vegas vacations, ready to try your luck at the casino tables or catch Bette Midler’s show, when a clipboard-toting salesman materializes in front of you. How about a pair of free tickets, he asks. All you have to is sit through a 90-minute timeshare presentation. What could go wrong?

Everything, actually.

If you’re not prepared for what’s ahead, you might end up owning a the wrong timeshare. There’s no shortage of complaints about timeshare companies and their programs, meaning all too often people allow themselves to be caught up in the moment and get involved in timeshare ownership without being fully aware of the facts. If you know what you’re doing, and you take steps to prevent yourself from unscrupulous companies, you can avoid the emotional and financial hardship that some experience.

The timeshare business has been around in one form or another since the 1970’s. According to a 2007 ARDA International Foundation study, the domestic timeshare industry has grown from a $2.2 billion business in 1996 to $10 billion in 2006. At last count, there were 1,615 resorts across the United States representing 176,232 units.

Timeshare properties are typically found in vacation hotspots like Branson, Cancun, Las Vegas, Myrtle Beach and Orlando. Many of the companies that promote timeshares are legitimate. But if you don’t know how timeshare presentations and the incentives offered work, you stand a chance of being scammed or persuaded into purchasing something with your guard down — a decision you may later regret.

Timeshare complaints are generally made to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Better Business Bureau of the state in which the company operates. A quick search can yield dozens of complaints for various reasons, and in fact, the FTC’s 2007 list of top consumer fraud complaints puts timeshare and related operations in 9th place, representing two percent of the agency’s complaints.

A good number of travelers are faced with the option of attending a timeshare presentation while on vacation or they’re enticed to take the vacation in the first place in order to attend the presentation. All too often, they get caught up in the emotion of the moment and make a purchase they later regret, and have little to no recourse to get out of it. Here are some tips to help you avoid timeshare scams while on vacation:

1. Don’t buy on emotion. No matter what arrangement you are presented with, dom’t commit to purchase a timeshare while at the presentation unless you have already researched the pros and cons of timeshare ownership. It’s certainly not for everyone, and the financial investment must be considered carefully. If you can, take the material home and take the time to read through it and fully understand what you’ll be agreeing to.

2. Freebies are not always free. Prizes and incentives offered as part of a presentation may have “fine print restrictions.” Know what they are before you accept them. Also, many timeshares come with a period of time, from three to five days, where the purchase can be canceled with no penalties (a ‘rescission’ period). These recession periods are governed by state law. To find out what your state’s requirements are, call the Attorney General’s office or visit the department’s Web site. If you take advantage of a benefit of being a timeshare owner during this recession period, you void any right to cancellation. A benefit can be something as simple as discounted show tickets. A good rule of thumb: if you are asked to pay for anything, say, “no, thank you.”

3. Read what you’re signing. Read the timeshare contract and have it reviewed by an attorney. If the sales person promised you something that’s not in the contract, don’t sign the contract. Some timeshare companies provide a ‘verification officer’ to go over details of the contract with you. Pay careful attention during this time, and make sure you read every word of the contract. You never know what you’re agreeing to if you don’t read it. Note: some companies do not allow you to leave the presentation with a copy of an unsigned contract. If this happens, it’s a clear signal that something isn’t right, and you should leave as quickly as possible. Outside the United States, especially in Mexico, it is important that the attorney you enlist for help is familiar with the laws governing timeshares in that country. Travel agency owner John Frenaye of Travels With Fred in Annapolis, Md., had a client who thought he was purchasing a timeshare for 30,000 pesos when it was actually $30,000. The contract he signed was in Spanish, and after some investigation he ended up chalking the experience up as a bad decision.

4. Remember, you DON’T have to take it. Most timeshare presentations involve high-pressure sales tactics. If you don’t think you can handle it, don’t go. Also, if the presentation makes you uncomfortable for any reason, get up and leave politely. Don’t let the salesmen argue with you or convince you to stay. Some clients of travel agents I know have left, only to have the salesmen follow them out, and every once in a while salesmen have been known to yell at the departing customers, and even getting rather crude with their statements. It pays to research the company hosting the presentation to find out if they have issues like this with their sales staff.

5. Research! Research! Research! A timeshare is a real estate investment. It’s important to treat it the same as if you were buying a home. Don’t purchase one blindly. Do the research, and know what you are purchasing.

6. Save it for another day. If you decide to attend a presentation, refrain from doing so on a honeymoon or other special occasion type of vacation. While on vacation, your guard is down, but on a honeymoon or other special getaway, your guard is down even more. Besides, who wants to waste three hours in a presentation on their honeymoon? Laura Frazier, of Bliss Honeymoons in Columbus, Ohio, frequently encounters brides who are lured in by a “free honeymoon” as an incentive for attending a company’s product demonstration. The fulfillment company for the ‘free’ honeymoons has a poor reputation with the Better Business Bureau, and many of their practices raise red flags.

Timeshare ownership has many benefits as well as drawbacks, and should be carefully thought out by the potential buyer. When you’re on vacation, or if you’re unprepared about what to expect, the entire experience can result in disaster. If you leave emotion out of the purchase, know what you’re signing, and are prepared as much as you can be, you can successfully skirt a timeshare tragedy.

Steve Cousino is an independent travel agent based in Branson, Mo.