Friday, July 3, 2009

Long Distance Wedding: Scams and Rip-offs

Just the other day we received a call from a panicked bride in California. Her wedding (which was in Houston, Texas) went off without a hitch—except for the pictures. The photographer had just called to say he was holding her pictures hostage—if she didn't send in another $500, she'd never see them and he'd destroy the negatives.

How did this happen? This long-distance bride became a victim of what we call the "local contract scam." Most contracts and agreements used by wedding merchants are written for in-town customers. For example, the photographer above had a "proof release" form that stated "the bride agrees to return the proofs within ten days; after this deadline, the bride agrees to purchase the entire proof set."

This clause is obviously used to encourage r couples to return their proofs (and hence place their orders) in a timely manner. The ten-day limit may be fine for in-town customers, but for our long-distance bride, this clause proved her undoing. Transit time to send the proofs from Texas to California chewed up five days alone. While the bride admitted to signing this form, she had no idea that the studio would hold her to this unrealistic time deadline. So, what do you think happened when the proofs arrived back in the studio past the deadline? The photographer called back the bride and said she would now have to purchase all the proofs (adding up to another $500 in charges!).

After the consumer brought this situation to our attention, we called the photographer to find out what happened. When pressed, the photographer admitted that the time deadline was unrealistic, but smugly said that it was the bride's "tough luck." He had the pictures and knew that the consumer wouldn't be interested in an expensive, long-distance court battie to get them.
What happened? The bride coughed up the $500 and got her pictures. And she learned a lesson—the same lesson that you can learn before you head down the aisle. You can avoid being a victim.

Weddings are a one-shot deal. After you purchase that dress, can you ever imagine yourself going back to the bridal shop? Will you buy another wedding video? Bridal bouquet?
The answer is probably no. After you walk out of that wedding business, the employees/owners are well aware that they'll never see you again. Unscrupulous scum bags see this as the perfect opportunity to fleece you out of your money, delivering shoddy goods and substandard services. Or failing to deliver anything at all, leaving town with your money.

Adding fuel to the fire is the "standard industry practice" of requiring (demanding) deposits to "hold your date." Some companies require 100 percent payment before they ever deliver you their goods or services. Often this is a recipe for disaster—after they've got your money, you must trust them to deliver those flowers to the wedding, shoot those pictures, serve that menu, or whatever. Paying in advance for something that is supposed to be delivered in the future is precarious at best. (An exception to this is Discount Bridal Service— mentioned in an earlier chapter—which requires a 100 percent deposit. We have found this company to be reliable and reputable.)

Long-distance and destination couples are especially vulnerable. If the merchant tries to pull a fast one you can't confront them face-to-face after the wedding—perhaps the most effective negotiating technique. They know you live hundreds (if not thou-sands) of miles away and you must trust them to do as they promise. Like the sleeze-bag photographer from the above story, they've got you in a corner and can theoretically demand whatever they think they can get away with.

All this said, it is worth noting that the majority of wedding merchants we have researched are honest folks. The cliche about the "few bad apples" is true to a certain degree—only a small percentage of companies are shady (perhaps one in ten). The problem is that you are playing roulette here with a lot of money—one wrong spin of the wheel, and you could find yourself in the position of the bride above who had her pictures held hostage.
As a result, we urge you to treat each merchant with what we call "polite suspicion." In other words, you must always plan for the worst-case scenario.


SCREEN! SCREEN! SCREEN! Most disreputable companies have left a large number of unhappy brides in their wake. As a result, they leave a trail of slime that can be detected if you talk to other wedding merchants, past brides, a local consumer protection office, and the Better Business Bureau. Taking the time to check references is your first line of defense.

GET EVERYTHING IN WRITING. No money should exchange hands until you've had time to review a written contract agreement that clearly spells out what you are receiving. Logistics such as delivery times should be clear and cancellation and refund policies must be spelled out.

MAKE ALTERATIONS TO STANDARD CONTRACTS TO ACCOUNT FOR LONGDISTANCE CIRCUMSTANCES. The bride in the story at the beginning of this chapter learned the sad fact that many contracts are written for in-town brides. In her case, she should have insisted in writing that the "standard" contract be modified to take into account her long-distance wedding. Be careful to look for penalty fees that zap you if you don't respond in a certain number of days. If you think any part of an agreement is unworkable, ask for changes.

NEVER, EVER ACCEPT VERBAL AGREEMENTS. A "hand-shake" agreement is a big no-no. Don't ever let the merchant take your money, promising to send a written agreement later. Often what happens is that the contract (which shows up much later) contains a few surprises they never told you about—surprises that could cost you dearly.

ALWAYS GET CHANGES IN WRITING. Changes are a part of life, especially when you plan something this far in advance. Make sure any change is also in writing—this does not mean you must sign a new agreement with the company, however. According to attorneys we have consult- ed, often all that is required is to send a written letter or memo that outlines the change. This is evidence that a change (that has been agreed to verbally) has taken place. Putting it in writing also helps the merchant remember the change.

NEGOTIATE THE LOWEST DEPOSIT POSSIBLE. Giving the merchant the lowest amount of deposit money possible provides a powerful incentive to the merchant—if they don't deliver the quality that's promised, they may not get the rest of their money. Try to pay the balance for bridal services after the goods/services are delivered to confirm the quality. This may not always be possible; many photographers, for example, insist on full payment before they take one shot. Others, like musicians or caterers, may allow you to settle at the end of the evening.

USE THAT CREDIT CARD. If you've read any of our other books, you know we highly recommend the use of credit cards. Remember that purchases (deposits and final payments) are covered by special consumer protection laws that enable you to receive a refund if the merchant fails to deliver what they promise. If you have a problem, you simply contact the bank that issued your card and dispute the charge; the merchant must then prove they didn't rip you off. When you write a check or pay by cash, you lose this crucial bargaining chip if things go wrong.

Consider hiring a bridal consultant or destination wedding planner. We realize doing this costs extra money, but consider the additional peace of mind. Having a bridal consultant at the wedding location makes the merchant think twice about ripping you off. Not only can the consultant harass them for a refund, but the merchant stands to lose all future business from the planner. The same goes for destination wedding planners—if the company has an on-site coordinator, the chances of getting scammed are less.

As a bride and groom, you obviously want to enjoy your wedding and reception. The last thing you want to do is dicker with a wedding merchant who is not doing their job. Arguing with the florist minutes before the wedding or finding out that the band is playing country instead of rock-n-roll is not any fun.

Yet you do want to get what you paid for. So, we recommend you use a "surrogate bad cop" to be your "enforcer" on the big day. This could be a wedding planner or consultant whom you have hired, or simply a relative (Mom) or a bridesmaid. Their job is to make your life happy by handling the dirty work. They will go tell the band to play the correct music, or get the florist to make the extra corsage they forgot to make for Grandma. Meet with the surrogate bad cop before the wedding. Tell them you have trusted them to make sure your wedding day is enjoyable—and you need them to fine-tune any last minute problems. Bring with you to the meeting and the wedding a folder with copies of all the written agreements you got from the merchants. Then, if the florist fails to bring that corsage and claims you didn't order it, your surrogate bad cop will whip out the written proposal that the florist signed and calmly point out their error. Grandma will get her corsage and you (the bride and groom) will enjoy the evening.
Another smart tip—get home phone numbers (as well as cellular and pager numbers) for all the merchants you've hired. Why? If it's Saturday night and the caterer is missing, do you think anyone is at their office? Probably not—you might have a better chance reaching them at home or in the car. Give this list to your surrogate bad cop to have at the wedding and reception.
A surrogate bad cop is an important job that you entrust to someone who is responsible. Make sure you pick wisely. The more helpful this person is willing to be, the more you'll actually enjoy the wedding and reception.

The marriage license may be one of the last things you'll purchase before the wedding, but beware that some states have some strange hoops that they force brides and grooms to jump through.

Waiting period rules are a prime example. Take Texas, for example. Brides and grooms in the Lone Star State must wait seventy-two hours after they get the license until the actual ceremony. The theory here is to provide a "cooling off" period for those couples who are rushing into marriage after a burst of passion. While this is nice, it sure is hell for long-distance brides and grooms who now must come into town three days early just to get the license.
Others states have blood test requirements. One Pennsylvania bride who was planning a wedding in Florida ran into a blizzard of red tape before her wedding. Florida told her they would only accept a blood test certificate from a Florida-state inspected lab, which took an entire return results. The upshot: the bride and groom had to go to Florida a-week before the wedding.

The message here: check with the county marriage license department in the town you are getting married in to find out all the requirements and weird rules. Above all, do this EARLY. If a blood test is required, for example, then you may be able to combine this with an on-site visit earlier in your planning process.

Also ask if there are any exemptions to the rules. For example, in Texas, a district judge can waive the waiting-period requirement. If you're in a jam, this may be worth investigating.

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