We've known for weeks now that this will be a summer unlike any other. Many traditional activities will be drastically changed or canceled outright over coronavirus concerns, and that includes many summer camps.
While new guidelines from camping advocates are helping some camps stay open, others have decided to call things off this year. That's left many families expecting refunds, but not everyone is getting their money back.
Among those unhappy campers is Ruth Ann Kvamme. The Los Gatos High School senior was excited to attend a tech camp aimed at future filmmakers.
"[It was] something that was a deciding factor for my future," Ruth Ann said. "I was expecting to learn basic skills about not only how to use film equipment, but also how to work with a team of people to create something."
Ruth Ann's parents paid more than $3,000 for her to attend a two-week-long Digital Media Academy camp to be held at Stanford University next month, but the organizer canceled its summer sessions.
"This was something that I was planning on helping me decide whether I want to go into the film industry, since I would be applying for colleges this fall," Ruth Ann said. "It was really disappointing."
Ruth Ann's parents say they asked Digital Media Academy for a refund, but it declined. Instead, it offered credit toward a future session of its camps, to be held next year.
We reviewed the DMA terms and conditions statement. It says it "does not refund students for canceled classes due to Acts of God," and specifically lists "flu pandemic" as an "Act of God."
DMA did something that, contractually, it did not have to do: it offered that future credit. But Ruth Ann says the ability to attend camp next year doesn't work for her.
"At that point, I will already have applied for college and decided where I’m going, so it would be irrelevant for me to use the program then," she said.
The Kvamme family wants to know what DMA did with the money it collected from them and many others. Stanford University, which was set to host the camp, told NBC Bay Area it has "...released [Digital Media Academy] from their contractual obligations" and it "urged them to provide refunds to their customers." But that's not happening.
We called, emailed, and messaged Digital Media Academy and asked for it to comment on this story. It did not respond to our repeated messages.
Many NBC Bay Area viewers tell us other camps are doing the same: canceling, refusing refunds, and not responding.
We turned to the American Camp Association, which says it has 12,000 members nationwide. We wanted to know just one thing: if camps aren't operating, what are the operators doing with all those deposits?
The American Camp Association responded to us, but it did not address our question.
Legal Options For Some Families
James McManis, a longtime San Jose lawyer and partner at the McManis Faulkner Law Firm, told NBC Bay Area some families may need to take legal action to get their money back.
"This is just disgusting behavior," McManis said, referring to camp organizers declining to offer refunds. "I think this is a very powerful situation here, where these people have paid all this money for something that’s very important to them. They’re not getting it, and they’re not getting the money back. You don’t need to know an awful lot more than that."
One family told us it filed a class-action lawsuit against a major summer camp operator last month. Not long after, the camp itself filed for bankruptcy protection.
Kimberly Palmer, a personal finance writer for San Francisco-based Nerdwallet, is also looking into summer camp refund disputes. Palmer told us the "no refund" policies are often found in the fine print.
"Some camps spell out clearly: it’s a nonrefundable deposit," Palmer said. "So, even in a situation like a global pandemic, that deposit is not getting refunded."
Palmer said families seeking a refund for any reason should act fast.
"Call and negotiate with the camp," Palmer said. "Even if the camp isn’t offering blanket refunds, if you have a particular situation -- maybe you’ve lost your job and you really need the money back -- the camp might be able to work with you."
Palmer said she's been getting complaints from readers -- just like us -- that many camps aren't negotiating. So, we asked the California Attorney General's office whether it's gotten complaints. It told us it cannot comment on that, but it recommended consumers file a complaint with its office if they can't get a refund. You can do that by clicking here.