Rossen Reports

Scammers target promgoers with fake designer dresses

April 11, 2013 at 7:35 AM ET

Video: As high school students all over the country begin their exhaustive searches for the perfect prom dress, scammers are cashing in on their excitement, selling cheap knockoff designer dresses online, claiming they’re the real deal. NBC’s Jeff Rossen reports.

A new warning for high school girls and their parents: With prom coming up, there are scammers targeting teens, and ruining their big night.

We've told you about scam artists selling fake electronics, handbags... the list goes on. Now these scammers are targeting the prom, fooling teeange girls with fake designer dresses, charging hundreds of dollars for gowns that literally fall apart in your hands.

It's prom season, and for the girls, it's all about the dress. "Prom overall is the Oscars to high school kids," said Kimberly Gambale, owner of clothing store Diane & Company.

High-end labels sell for hundreds of dollars. That's a ton of money for most high school kids and their parents, which is why they're always looking for the best deal. Now brazen scammers are cashing in on their excitement.

Their websites are a teen girl's dream, offering designer prom gowns at deep discounts. The sites sure look real, but designers say it's all a scam. "At least three to four times a week we're faced with girls who have been scammed by online websites," Gambale told us.

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Alexandra Marschall wanted a Sherri Hill dress, one of the hottest labels in prom wear today. "I was working for months to save up the money," she told us.

She found the perfect dress. In the store it cost $400. Alexandra found it online for 25 percent off and ordered it on the spot. "My immediate reaction was, you know, 'Oh my gosh, this is awesome. The dress I love, it's beautiful, and it's at a great price, so it's gonna make my mom happy, too.'"

But just a week before prom, what she got in the mail was misery in a box: a cheap knockoff, mailed from China. Wrong color, wrong fabric, sloppy stitching, and way too big. "It was supposed to be just one color," Alexandra said. "The lining is so itchy. The dress feels cheap."

In the online photo, the dress was covered in beads; instead, it came with a plastic bag of beads and a sewing kit. "I took a step back and said, 'Do they expect me to sew this on? I'm a teenage girl. I do not know how to sew,'" Alexandra recalled.

Now scam artists are shipping imposter prom gowns to girls across the country. We looked at one with shoddy stitching that was falling apart, with beading that looked like an arts and crafts project gone wrong.

Dusty Hill is the president of the real Sherri Hill, trying to intercept the fakes. "It's a huge problem, and growing," he said.

So huge, the company has hired two full-time investigators to hunt down the counterfeit sites. "This is a fake website, but they're using authentic pictures," one investigator told us as he showed us an example. "They just take it off of Google images and upload it to their site, and pretend it's our dresses."

The trouble is, these counterfeit websites are usually like whack-a-mole: when you knock one down, another one pops up.

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"We're aware this is not a problem we're going to be able to fix," Dusty Hill said. "It's going to be an ongoing fight."

The federal government has shut down hundreds of these sites, but the scammers are tough to catch, many of them based overseas. Good luck getting your money back. And those priceless prom memories.

"When I put the dress on, I didn't feel beautiful," Alexandra Marschall said. "And you're supposed to feel beautiful at prom." At the last minute she had to buy a new dress, and spend hundreds more.

So how do you protect yourself? Experts say: Call the company directly and ask, "I'm on this website, is this an authorized dealer?" They're happy to tell you.

And this helps too: Many of the top prom dress designers have posted a list of authorized websites, so you can check there too before you go shopping.

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