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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.