Bride-to-be Natalie Toleman was determined her wedding dress had to be something special. So when she saw a stunning designer gown advertised online at a hefty discount, it was love at first sight.
But she said the £400 dress turned out to be hideous, nothing like the original, and a furious Natalie found it impossible to send it back.
The 24-year-old Ports-mouth youth worker is getting married in October and had been on the look-out for the perfect wedding dress.
Natalie is not one for tradition. She wanted something more modern and a bit different, so she thought what better place to look than around the internet?
In June her iPad went into overdrive as she sought inspiration, and she thought she’d found it when a website called instyledress.co.uk caught her eye.
Everything about the site looked attractive. It was bright and cheerful and appeared to be exactly what she was looking for.
It had a UK trading address and claimed to be the UK’s largest bridal retailer, hiring only the best dressmakers and experienced designers who use the finest production techniques.
She said: ‘The site had an inspirational number of dresses and gowns on offer at discount prices so I rang my mum to get her opinion, and we narrowed it down to three options.
‘I finally settled for a stunning strapless silk gown with gold and silver sequins, so I sent off my measurements and paid the £400.69.
‘The delivery over-ran and took much longer than advertised, but the dress finally arrived rolled up in what suspiciously looked like a bin bag.
‘When I finally unpacked it I was horrified. It was nothing like what was advertised on the website and looked truly hideous.
‘The entire shape of the dress was unrecognisable, and the ‘pure silk’ material turned out to be cheap polyester.
‘The gown on the website was beautiful. I just don’t know how they can claim it is the same thing. People need to be warned about this.’
Natalie was so angry she decided to fall back on the firm’s advertised returns policy.
It claimed that would-be brides who were not satisfied with their orders had only to contact the firm’s customer service, who would find the perfect solution asap.
But when she attempted to make contact with Quandies Ltd, the advertised UK address she was unable to get a reply, and her string of emails to their website address remained unanswered. Clearly a refund was out of the question.
Frantic with frustration, Natalie went back online to view comments on a number of review sites and was horrified at what she discovered.
Countless brides shared their rip-off nightmares after being fooled into buying gowns that looked the business online, but were nothing like the finished product.
Not knowing where to turn next she contacted Streetwise to see if we could ride to the rescue.
We pointed out that buying online from unfamiliar firms was a risk too far because the worldwide web could be a lawless place and almost impossible to police.
Our first port of call was Companies House, the official registrar of all limited liability companies in the UK.
A quick check soon established that Quandies Ltd, trading as Instyle Dresses, was not a registered UK firm. Although the website gave an English address it was actually hosted in China.
The plot thickened when we discovered a number of complaints had previously been made to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) watchdog about the firm’s apparent misleading practice.
They called on Instyle Dresses to modify their website information but when the firm ignored the ruling they didn’t have the necessary powers to block it from the internet.
A spokesperson for the national trading standards eCrime Team agreed that Natalie had her priorities the wrong way round when she pressed the ‘buy’ tab on her iPad.
The most important first step when buying from an unknown website was to check out the experience of other customers via online review sites.
Buyers should never pay by money transfer, and problems with non-receipt of goods or where the product doesn’t match the description should be reported to trading standards via the Citizens’ Advice consumer helpline on 03454 04 05 06.
After Streetwise spoke to Natalie she immediately arranged to have a dress made to her specification by a reputable online dressmaking service.
But in another unexpected twist, we also had some good news for her.
As she’d paid for the gown by credit card there was a good chance she was entitled to a full refund from the card company under the 1974 Consumer Credit Act because the dress had been misrepresented on the website.
A surprised, but over-the-moon Natalie, said: ‘I was horrified when I read the reviews. I can’t believe how easily I was scammed and my thoughts are with all those girls who’ve lost out by hundreds of pounds and have been left with almost nothing to show for it.
‘Streetwise not only put me back on the straight and narrow, but gave me the chance to warn others not to be scammed by these rogue companies. I will always be grateful.’