Shocking stories of missing caterers and out-of-business dress shops, plus how to protect yourself
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.