Some North Texas teenage girls ended up in tears this prom season because the dress they ordered online either never arrived or arrived looking like a cheap impostor of the designer dress they thought they ordered.
W.T. White High School senior Dashya McCuin has been dreaming about prom since she was a freshman, but the 17-year-old's dreams were dashed when the dress she ordered online never arrived.
She had her sights set on a baby blue, strapless high-low gown embellished with ruffles and sequins from a website called fabpartydress.com.
"She wanted that particular dress and, if you know my daughter, she has to have what she wants or she's not going to leave you alone," said Leslie McCuin, her mother.
Like many moms sending their princesses to prom, McCuin caved, allowing her daughter to buy her dress online. Dashya McCuin ordered it in March, weeks before her big day so that she'd get it in time. She even told the website her prom was two weeks before the actual date to make sure there was plenty of cushion.
But as prom inched closer, the dress was a no-show.
"It never came," McCuin said.
McCuin was heartbroken and empty-handed and the clock was ticking. To add insult to injury, McCuin got an email from fabpartydress.com in April that read, in broken English, "I am sorry the dress still not shipped yet, I am afraid the dress can't arrive you Saturday, maybe you can keep it for your next function?"
"I didn't think people would do that," said McCuin. "Like, proms and weddings are, like, so serious, so why would you play with people's emotions like that?"
The American Bridal and Prom Industry Association said plenty of companies are playing with young ladies' emotions. Two of the large local prom retailers, Terry Costa and Whatchamacallit, hear the same sad sob story time and time again.
"I'm tired of little girls coming through here at the last minute and they're almost in tears when they walk through the front door," said Tina Loyd, the CEO of Terry Costa, which has both a brick-and-mortar and an online store. "That's not what it's about."
Loyd said the problem has been prevalent for the past three years, and 2013 is no different. In fact, she orders more dresses at the end of the season for what she called those "last-minute horror stories."
ABPIA said more than 2,500 websites rip images of dresses off of legitimate designers' websites and use them on their own websites without permission. They lure girls in so they think they're buying designer dresses with a cheaper price tag. Instead, they sell knockoffs.
ABPIA's head and CEO of Mon Cheri, Steve Lang, told the NBC 5 Investigates Consumer Unit about 300,000 knockoffs came into the United States from abroad, costing the industry $120 million.
And families end up paying the price, when the online order goes south by never arriving or looking like a cheap imitation. The girls then have to go buy another dress and spend even more money.
The industry is so concerned about the issue that 12 major manufacturers filed a lawsuit aimed at shutting these websites down.
In Whatchamacallit's Dallas location, owner Gary Graham keeps a knockoff of a Sherri Hill dress next to the real deal as a cautionary tale of an online order gone wrong.
Sherri Hill is an A-list designer among teen girls heading to their big dance. The Sherri Hill hanging in Whatchamacallit's window is a turquoise short gown with elegant gold beading and fancy feathers. It retails for around $730. The imitation, bought online, cost about half, and is ice blue, looking more like an ice-skating costume gone wrong.
"Fake feathers versus real feathers; the stones aren't even correct. The color is way off. The design, the style, is completely off," Graham said.
White Settlement mother Teresa Davis can relate. Her daughter looked online for a dress to save money, and she found a beautiful sea-foam green dress with gorgeous beading on the bodice on a website called dreamprom.com. It's the exact same image of the same dress as on the website of the legitimate designer, Night Moves by Allure, so she ordered it, spending more than $200.
But what arrived was a dramatic departure from the dreamy dress. It was a baby-blue gown with plastic beading in a connect-the-dot pattern and a skirt made of a mesh material. It came in a 10-by-12 envelope postmarked from China.
"The dress didn't look anything like the one on the site; just a cheap knockoff," Davis said.
Davis sent numerous emails to the company complaining about the quality and asking for a refund. Via email, the company told her the dress was "beautiful" and that there could be a "5 percent difference" between the product pictured and the product she received. She did not get a refund and bought her daughter another dress, which cost $500.
"I still cannot believe we spent that much money," Davis said, adding that her daughter's grandmother chipped in as part of her graduation present.
The NBC 5 Investigates Consumer Unit reached out to dreamprom.com, based in Hong Kong, and fabpartydress.com, based in China. We never got a response from either company.
Neither the Davis family nor the McCuin family ever got a refund.
Experts advise when buying a prom dress online, call the company to ask if it's an authorized dealer. Look for the "Top Prom" logo on the website. It was created by the industry to help identify websites, which are authorized to sell designers.
And if the discount is too deep, it's a red flag.
"I wasn't going to miss prom, so I had to find a new dress," said McCuin, who finally settled on a bright pink high-low dress with golden beading that cost about $200 at Terry Costa. She paired it with matching jewelry and sparkling platform heels.
"It was fun. It was bright, so I was just like, 'This is it,'" she said. "When I saw myself in it, I really liked it."
"She kept saying, 'Say yes to the dress, mom. Say yes to the dress,'" her mother said. "It was yes to the dress because she's beautiful in it."