BLUE RIDGE, Ga. -
Here's a tactic you don't hear used much in the hospitality business: if your customer disputes a credit card charge, ask a judge to put your guest in jail.
It's been happening on a regular basis in one Georgia tourist community, Blue Ridge.
The quaint town serves as Georgia's welcome mat to the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains. Merchants hope tourists return again and again.
But criminal court was not the return trip destination guests had in mind.
"I have a very bad taste in my mouth right now about Blue Ridge," complained Linda Kennedy of Acworth.
Over the last five years, Cabin Rentals of Georgia sought criminal charges against at least 60 guests. Most were like Adam Hayes of Athens. Last fall he rented from Cabin Rentals of Georgia. He told the company it would be just him and his wife for the weekend. At the last minute, he said his parents decided to join them. And he brought his 10-pound Golden-doodle.
"We're actually a Gold Star family," Hayes explained to us outside the courtroom. "We lost a member of our family in Iraq so we used to all get together to watch the GA-FL game. So we all just wanted to watch the game."
But when he got home that weekend, Hayes found Cabin Rentals of Georgia had forfeited his $500 security deposit, all for failing to disclose the two extra people and pet. The company includes charges by the person, $25 each per night, plus extra charges for pets. Hayes said he had already paid about $1000 up front.
When he couldn't get anyone at the rental company to explain the extra $500 charge, Hayes filed a dispute with this credit card company. So rental company owner Gary Knight filed an application to have Hayes arrested for "theft of services." And he claimed Hayes now owed $1953.19 in additional charges
"He was observed at 1:02 PM with one car, two adults," rental company owner Gary Knight told the court. "Black sedan. 3:19 PM, second car, two adults, 1 small dog."
"I think it's such a shame he uses such an intimidation factor cause people don't know their rights," Hayes pointed out.
The company lists about 30 properties, 11 of them owned by Knight himself. Their website shows some expensive-looking cabins.
Knight: "I have a duty to my owners, to protect their property. And to make sure that the right people, the booked people, are staying at these homes."
But Linda Kennedy of Acworth said it was her understanding she could report any additional guests the next business day.
"I never had the opportunity to do that," she explained outside the Fannin County Courthouse. "Before I even got back Tuesday morning of the holiday weekend, the charges had already hit my bank and I had a threatening letter letting me know what the extra charges were for."
More than $2000 in extra charges, including, she said, strangers who never actually spent the night but crossed the cabin property to get down to the river.
How did Gary Knight know about all of those people? Cameras. We spotted one in a photo from the company website.
"If someone gets, heaven forbid, has too much to drink and falls over, those cameras are legitimate," Knight offered as justification.
Plus, he told us the cameras provide protection for cabin valuables.
"There is a suggestion by some of the people who are upset with you that you are monitoring them in real time with these cameras," I asked.
"No, that is not us," Knight replied.
The company did warn guests about those security cameras. It was on page seven of the 16-page rental contract. It said the security cameras are always in the public area where there's no reasonable expectation of privacy. And it said you shouldn't try to cover up those cameras or you're in violation of the contract.
But guests like Carla Jones of Florida complained the cameras seemed aimed at more intimate areas, too.
"There was one by the hot tub area." she remembered. "That's why we didn't get in."
"He says it's for your security to have these cameras around," I pointed out. "Well, who's going to save me if something happened?" Jones replied. "The camera?"
Most of the 60 cases in the last five years were withdrawn after Knight reached a settlement with his guests. They paid him. They avoided a criminal charge.
Turns out, the guests who came back to Blue Ridge on the day we watched didn't have to say a thing in court. Amid chuckles from the courtroom, Knight announced he was withdrawing the case against Adam Hayes, the Athens man who brought his parents that weekend.
"I've got FOX 5 recording this whole situation," Knight explained to the judge. "And out of the kindness of my heart, I'm going to ask that you dismiss the case."
And judge Allen Wigington took care of the others.
"I do not see that a crime has been committed," he ruled.
"I wish all guests, every guest would come to Fannin County and just be honest about their stay," Knight told us outside the courthouse.
He won't have to worry about the three who showed up to face him in court. They've removed themselves from his future guest list.
Meanwhile, the city of Blue Ridge has become sensitive to the on-line criticism being posted by upset Cabin Rentals of Georgia customers. That included CJ Stam III, the president of the Blue Ridge Lodging Association and a cabin rental operator himself.
"The Blue Ridge Lodging Association was established by a group of peers closely involved in the lodging and tourism industry in Blue Ridge," he said in an emailed statement. "The company involved in your story is not currently a member of our association. Our Organization promotes improved business relationships and opportunities to increase tourism in Blue Ridge, but we do not represent the industry as a whole. Our goal is to help our members provide a quality experience for their guests, and we are disappointed that this situation could not be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. Our goal is to help our members create a quality experience for everyone who visits Blue Ridge."