Prom gown scams: Online sellers offer counterfeits as bargains
PITTSFIELD -- Hannah Gregg describes the prom dress she found pictured on an online website as "gorgeous."
And this dress wasn't just pretty. It was a bargain. It was being offered for $60, much less than the dress would have cost in a store.
"Everyone else spends $300 to $400 on dresses," Gregg, who is 16, remembers thinking. "This is a super good deal."
But her elation soon turned to disappointment.
When the dress Gregg purchased online arrived at her house in Chatham, N.Y., it looked nothing like it did in the picture.
"The real dress is gold and sparkly," she said. "Mine was like a mustard-yellow type of brown, and had really cheap sequins. It didn't fit right. It was gross."
That dress is currently on display at Deidre's on South Street, and owners Joe and Deidre Torra have placed it there for a reason.
"We're tired of hearing kids cry," Deidre Torra said. "They come to us when they've been ripped off."
Deidre's is a member of the American Bridal and Prom Industry Association, an organization that has taken legal action to try and stop companies, many based in China, from selling phony prom dresses and bridal gowns to girls and women through online websites.
According to Joe Torra, these companies swipe the images of prom dresses from the websites of legitimate dressmakers, then post them online under a different name.
"They just photoshop out the name of the company," he said.
"... You're dealing with children who think that the Internet is just this wonderful world to play in," Deidre Torra said, "and their websites took advantage of that."
The girls who fall victim to this scam can't return the dresses, or seek financial reimbursement, because the websites have no return policy.
The Torras first heard about this scam two years ago. Last year, Joe Torra said around five dozen customers of their store were affected by the scam "in one way or another." This year, the couple decided to take action as prom season in the Berkshires begins to heat up.
"When it really starts affecting us is when parents come in and say, ‘If you guys know this is happening then why don't you let us know,'" Joe Torra said. "But ... trying to get into the schools or through to the kids and parents. It's a very difficult thing."
So far Torra said he has visited every high school in Berkshire County, plus a handful in New York state and Vermont, to inform school officials about the scam's existence. The first Berkshire County high school he visited had never heard of the scam, Torra said.
"We've printed out thousands of these," he said, referring to those pamphlets.
At Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington, school officials took the information that Torra gave them and put it in a weekly bulletin that the school sends out to parents.
The ABPIA, a nonprofit that has 300 members in the United States and Canada, has gone even farther. The organization and 25 of its members filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Trenton, N.J. on April 1 against 121 websites, three of which have web addresses in the United Kingdom.
Federal Judge Freda L. Wolfson granted a temporary restraining order against the defendants, temporarily blocking them from selling their products, pending a court hearing on May 3.
ABPIA founder Stephen Lang, the CEO of Mon Cheri LLC, a leading prom dress manufacturer based in New Jersey, said if the defendants don't follow the judge's order, they will be in default, which means the plaintiffs could pursue further legal action.
PayPal, Visa, MasterCard, AMEX and Google have all been made aware of the ABPIA's lawsuit, according to a flier that the Torras have been handing out. And U.S. Customs, and Homeland Security are working in tandem with the ABPIA to seize, destroy and stop the shipments that are coming from these addresses.
"If you don't stand up for yourself, who's going to?" Lang asked."We're not the only industry that's besieged by this. Fountain pens, golf clubs, you name it. It's being counterfeited."
According to Lang, counterfeit dresses on phony websites cost the prom and bridal industry between 500,000 and 600,000 units in dress sales last year.
"The more units you take out of the marketplace, it weakens the retailer and it weakens the manufacturers," he said.
Although Gregg was unable to recoup the investment that she lost over the Internet, she will go to her prom. She purchased another dress at a store.
She has some advice for others who find themselves wanting a beautiful inexpensive prom dress that they've spotted on the Internet.
"If it's definitely too good to be true," she said, "it is. I thought I was getting a good deal, and I got none at all."
For those who need physical proof, the dress Gregg purchased online is still hanging at Deidre's Special Day.
"The picture worth a thousand words? This is worth a million words," Joe Torra said. "To feel, to touch, to look at, to handle. Every person that I've showed this dress to instantly saw."
Spotting a fake
• Price: If it's too good to be a true, that's a red flag.
• The website: Some sites look really professional at first glance, but brandjackers aren't always careful with the About or FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) page.
• Returns policy: Reputable websites spell that out.
• Reputation: Is the site or seller mentioned on any scam warning sites? Search for "vendor+scam" and see what comes up.
Source: MarkMonitor/MSN Money
To reach Tony Dobrowolski: