When planning their Minneapolis wedding, Anne and Mark Hooley made first-rate entertainment a priority. "We pictured a classic big band that could do songs like ‘Mack the Knife’ and ‘Fly Me to the Moon,’" says Anne. They scoured the Twin Cities’ music listings and hit the nightclubs until one singer with a Bobby Darin–style croon stood out. The couple interviewed him during a set break and were delighted when the singer said he could subcontract with a well-known local 12-piece band. Days later, they signed a contract and wrote him a $2,500 deposit check.
Over the next few months they went to several of the singer’s performances and worked out all the details with him over the phone. Then he stopped returning their calls. "We’d see his name in the paper, so we knew he was still performing," says Anne. "But after a week of calling him every day, we started to panic. The wedding was three weeks away, and we realized he wasn’t going to show up." Their anxiety reached a breaking point when they phoned the leader of the band the singer had supposedly hired—who was totally confused about why they were calling him.
Luckily, Anne and Mark were getting married on a Friday night; while this band was booked for months solid on Saturdays, they were free the night of the wedding. But the fact that they had been scammed by one of their most important vendors rankled. Since both are attorneys, the couple knew their best recourse was to sue in small-claims court for the $2,500 deposit. When the singer didn’t show, they won. But it was a bittersweet victory, because in order to collect the money, they needed to get access to his assets—a process they had neither the time nor the energy to take on. Still, says Anne, "It made us feel better to know there was now a file against him in the public record."
The last thing any couple needs is the disappointment, stress and financial drain of getting ripped off by the very people they depend on to make their day unique. It might seem unromantic to plan your wedding with the same kind of legal eye you would use to negotiate a business merger, but that’s what wedding experts and consumer advocates suggest. "Weddings are sentimental events full of wonderful traditions," says Leslie Sandberg, press secretary for the Minnesota attorney general. "But couples need to remember that they are also business transactions. As with any industry, there will be bad apples. Doing your homework before signing any contracts is your best protection."
While no government agency specifically tracks wedding-industry scams, Sheila Adkins, director of public affairs at the Council of Better Business Bureaus in Washington, D.C., says that wedding-dress shops accounted for 1,016 of the 758,923 complaints filed nationwide in 2005. Of the other wedding-related industries the BBB tracks, photographers had the most strikes against them (1,301 complaints) and were followed closely by florists and limousine companies. Of course, this only reflects the people who were motivated enough to file complaints. After interviewing more than 1,000 couples and analyzing BBB statistics, Alan and Denise Fields, authors of Bridal Bargains: Secrets to Throwing a Fantastic Wedding on a Realistic Budget, estimate that as much as 10 percent of wedding costs is eaten by industry fraud. And yet, "most vendors are genuine businesspeople who want to build up their companies legitimately," says Robbi Ernst III, founder and president of June Wedding, Inc., in San Francisco, an association for event professionals.
Hiring a vendor new to the industry might be a tempting way to save money, but it can backfire. "A startup might not be around in a year," says Adkins. Rae Anne Leiker and Kevin Davis figured this out the hard way at their rehearsal dinner in Topeka. Kevin’s parents had hired a caterer for a Kansas-style barbecue at a park on a local lake. Unfortunately, when everyone had arrived, there was no food; Kevin’s father had to dash out to get pizzas. (The family later learned the business had closed.) Kevin’s parents filed a claim with the Kansas attorney general, but the settlement—to be paid over several years—didn’t even begin to make up for the chaos and disappointment the no-show caused.
Requiring couples to pay for services in cash is another scammer strategy. Katie Mackin was so meticulous about planning her wedding that she called every bridal boutique within a one-hour radius of Lyndhurst, OH, the Cleveland suburb where she grew up, to get quotes on the strapless A-line Casablanca gown she wanted. The lowest came from Sherry’s Bridal & Tuxedo in nearby Twinsburg. Katie went there several times and had phone conversations with owner Sherry Springer. "She was warm," says Katie. "Her father was a coach at the high school where my mom teaches, and I liked that we had that personal connection." When Springer told Katie she would need to pay the full amount of the gown to get the discounted price, Katie gladly wrote her a check.
The glitches started soon after. Katie kept checking in to make sure her dress was ordered, but Springer wasn’t calling back. After several weeks, she told Katie that she had been in the hospital and placed on a ventilator while she battled a life-threatening infection. "I was incredibly sympathetic," remembers Katie. "I told her not to worry and to take care of herself."
Nearly two months later, Katie admitted to herself that she wasn’t getting her dress anytime soon. But when she asked Springer for a refund, she was told it was impossible because the dress had already been ordered. Katie called Casablanca to ask if they could ship the gown to her directly. To her surprise, she was told Springer wasn’t a licensed retailer and therefore was unable to place orders. Katie then asked Springer for her order’s confirmation number, which she wouldn’t provide. "Then I dropped the bomb that I knew she wasn’t even able to order my dress," says Katie. Springer said she had used a middleman but wouldn’t give her any details.
That’s when Katie and her mother, Micki Mackin, went to the Twinsburg Police Department. A detective said Springer had closed her shop. Word had spread and anxious brides were standing outside the boutique in tears. "It was emotional," says police chief Chris Noga. "These brides had been waiting for months [for their dresses] and it was getting closer and closer to their big day." The police wanted to help but were able to find only one case—involving a refund written with a bad check—that was legally considered criminal. (For Katie’s case to be considered a crime, she would have had to prove Springer took her money with the intent to not place her order, a nearly impossible task.)
Katie did take Springer to small-claims court—the first in more than a dozen such suits Springer would eventually face—and won. And Katie bought her dress again, for $100 more than she’d planned to pay the first time, from another boutique. Today, she and her husband, Anthony Havel, are happily married—and savvier about protecting themselves when making big purchases. "Had I called the Better Business Bureau, I would have seen Springer had four claims against her," she says. "And I definitely would have paid with a credit card, because then I would’ve had some protection."
This is what helped Helena and Ted Manning. For their Madison, WI, wedding, they wanted a photographer who would give them the negatives—not an easy feat, given that most wedding photographers keep them to ensure they receive the income from prints ordered. When Helena met with Casey McGovern, an established Madison photographer who agreed to hand over the negatives, she was so impressed with his professionalism that she hired him and wrote a check for $738.48, more than half of the total bill.
Their reception was held at Monona Terrace, a Madison landmark, and by all accounts, McGovern did a wonderful job. "He took extra steps to make it special," Helena remembers. "People commented on how charismatic he was. You could tell he enjoyed being there and had pride in his work."
McGovern told the Mannings he normally needed six to eight weeks to deliver the proofs, but that since their late October wedding would coincide with holiday orders, theirs would arrive a little later. So when they didn’t hear from him by Christmas, they weren’t worried. But when Helena called a week after the holidays, she learned the number was disconnected. She went to a bridal shop where she had earlier seen McGovern’s card and when she asked the shopkeeper why it was no longer there, she was told the store wasn’t allowed to discuss it. The Mannings contacted the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection, who confirmed that McGovern had run into financial trouble and gone missing. An article in the Wisconsin State Journal reported that McGovern and his wife had skipped town only a month after the Mannings’ wedding and were now on a yacht somewhere in the Caribbean.
As they sorted through the paperwork needed to take legal action against McGovern, the Mannings couldn’t believe they would not have a single photo of the best day of their lives. Then a police raid on McGovern’s studio and apartment turned up 12 rolls of film in a Ziploc bag with the Mannings’ name on it. Their credit-card company refunded the $527.47 balance they’d paid McGovern 10 days before the wedding, and they used it to develop their photos. Still, the soap opera took a toll on their enthusiasm. "We developed only the four by sixes and put them in an album with clear plastic sleeves," says Helena. "We knew we were the lucky ones because we actually got our pictures, but we were too exhausted to deal with them."
It’s the time and the money wasted on these scammers that most bothered the couples we spoke with. But their betrayals did offer one upshot: These brides and grooms entered their marriages better equipped than most to negotiate all of the major purchases they still had ahead of them. They all feel confident that they won’t get ripped off ever again.
Ask tough questions. If a vendor or wedding planner doesn’t want to provide any references, take that as a sign that he might have something to hide. If he does give you a list of references, call at least three. Since dishonest vendors can provide fake references, get suggestions from your own friends or acquaintances when possible.
Do your homework. Call your local Better Business Bureau, which records the number of complaints filed against a vendor. (You can also contact the attorney general or Department of Consumer Affairs, but they can tell you only if a lawsuit has been brought against a vendor, which may not give you the best idea of the history.) For an immediate answer, call instead of e-mailing, say our insiders; it can sometimes take weeks for staffers to respond to an e-mail. All of this information is free.
Shop around. Get competitive bids and estimates and let your potential vendors know you are comparison shopping. This sends the signal that you are serious about doing your research.
Listen to your gut. Even if your research checks out, if your instinct gives you a negative feeling about this person or company, look elsewhere.
Get it all in writing. The most common forms of wedding rip-offs aren’t the dramatic no-shows, but rather substitutions that often happen at the last minute. Luckily, these are the easiest problems to protect yourself from. Meg Stepanek, a wedding planner who specializes in destination weddings in the Vail, CO, area, ensures that her couples don’t end up feeling zinged when their original choices fall through by making certain that acceptable substitutions are specified in writing. Stepanek is also always on the lookout for other hidden costs, such as setup fees for waitstaff, cake-cutting fees and cleanup charges. All need to be specified in a contract and countersigned by your vendors.
Pay with credit cards. This way you have some control over a situation: You can stop charges from going through and investigate problems. Never pay in full until the service has been provided, and make sure that your vendors give you receipts for all of your deposits.
Have proof on hand. Bring a three-ring binder containing all of your contracts and receipts to the wedding and keep it in a safe place. Should any of your vendors not stick to their agreed services, you’ll have everything you need to carry on an informed discussion.