JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Spring is one of the most popular time of the year for weddings. But it's also peak season for scammers looking to cash in on your big day. It's something nearly half-a-dozen Jacksonville brides and grooms-to-be say they've experienced at the hands of Alpha & Omega Event Consultants.
They claim the company inflated prices and bilked them out of thousands of dollars, and didn't arrange the events they had paid for.
"Everybody needs to know that they are shammers," said Sherri Kelly, a former Alpha & Omega client.
"When we went to sit down with them to go over the numbers, they would never give us anything in writing. They would just show us a spreadsheet -- an Excel spreadsheet -- and the numbers would change every time," added her husband, Merrick Kelly.
The Kelly's say they lost $6,400 to Alpha & Omega Event Consultants when they hired they company to handle their November wedding. They say they realized something was wrong after they reached out to the bridal shop to confirm payment but the numbers didn't add up.
"They paid for the dress, which was $200 cheaper than what she actually quoted us and they did do a deposit on the building," said Sherri Kelly. "I had to get another wedding dress because they wouldn't release my wedding dress to me. So I had to actually buy two wedding dresses."
The Kelly's story is eerily similar to those of Becky Bourne (pictured) and Natasha Armstrong (below).
"I went there in the afternoon and they were closed and everything was empty. And I tried calling the number and I got no answer. It was disconnected," said Bourne, a former Alpha & Omega client.
"We did not have our wedding at the original venue because of this mishap, so we did have to wait because our money was all gone and we ended up waiting a year later," said Armstrong, another former client. "I did lose close to $7,000. Two-thousand of that did go to the venue which was at a loss because I did not have my wedding there."
Two other brides -- who did not want to be identified -- say they went through similar experiences as well.
"I'm a nervous wreck because we don't have anything that this company said they would supply to us," one former client told us. "We are basically planning a wedding in 32 days."
Another former client told Channel 4 she lost $6,000 to the company before terminating her contract earlier this year.
Between all five brides we interviewed, they claim nearly $28,000 has been lost.
All of the women say they worked primarily with the company owner, Zandra Beard. A search of public records shows the 48-year-old was convicted of cocaine possession while armed back in 1994.
Also, since 2012, the Florida Department of Revenue has issued warrants for more than $12,000 in back taxes against her corporation, Dorza Inc.
When we went to the address listed for Dorza Inc., we discovered it was a fake address and suite number. Duval County Clerk records show Alpha & Omega was evicted from its St. Nicholas property in February because it owed more than $22,000 in unpaid rent since last April.
"She would tell us one thing one day and the next day it was another," said Issie Matthews, a former Alpha & Omega employee. "When we did our quotes, she would tell us to do it a certain way and then after I finished a quote she would be like 'no, you did this wrong, you know, add this much more."
And while Beard isn't talking, her attorney, Regina Wright told us over the phone the claims of wrongdoing are "nothing but lies."
When we went to Beard's home to get answers, a man ran inside and refused to open the door when we identified ourselves as Channel 4. We tried to call her as well, but Beard told us she had no affiliation with the company and hung up after telling us she was in the hospital.
According to a post on the Alpha & Omega Event Consultants Facebook page she wrote: "I would be careful of the post you post, as you too can be added to the list of lawsuits being filed. Get your information straight before you start blaming people on rumors!!!!!"
So far, the only people to file suit are Sherri and Merrick Kelly. They fought and won, thanks in part to one important tool.
"I actually rented a video down at the courthouse library that talks about how to file a small claims court lawsuit and we both sat down and watched it and figured out what we needed to and went through the process," said Merrick Kelly.
Tanya Hendricks, with Southern Charm Events is now helping one former Alpha & Omega bride pick up the pieces by turning her matrimonial misgivings into magic.
"I explained to her that I was a member of the ABC -- the Association of Bridal Consultants -- and after going through everything and letting her talk and letting her know that I was going to take care of everything," said CEO Tanya Hendricks. "When we got done she hugged me. And it wasn't a wimpy hug, it was a bear hug. And she got tears in her eyes and she said 'You're an angel.'"
The president of the Better Business Bureau of Northeast Florida, Tom Stephens, says the troubles couples are talking about haven't turned into many complaints with the BBB. In fact, it's B+ rating is based on four complaints over the last three years.
"The red flags really weren't raised up. There wasn't enough activity to make a red flag go up and say we need to look harder at this company," said Stephens. "To our knowledge this company has not had any serious problems in 3 years up until right now."
So what can you do to ensure your walk down the aisle is a stress free one?
Hendricks says you need to do your homework both online and in person.
"You need to look on two sides. There's reviews out there from other brides. But you need to ask vendors," she said. "And make sure the planner is licensed and certified."
Hendricks added, "The Association of Bridal Consultants holds us to a code of ethics. And one of those codes is that we do not take percentages of a budget."
Before you sign anything, Hendricks recommends you read over all of the contract terms to evaluate the company's refund, exchange and cancellation policy. It's also important to clarify what happens if the company does not hold up their end of the contract.
"Any planner worth his or her salt should be able to give you a list of 10 satisfied customers in the last year or last year and a half," said Stephens. "If they can't do that, they're not doing much business and I probably wouldn't be interested in talking to them much further."
Once a wedding planner is selected, Hendricks and Stephens say couples need to document everything, pay with a credit card and consider wedding insurance. Vendor no-shows, bad weather, medical emergencies, travel delays and more are covered and can potentially save you thousands of dollars. They also recommend you speak up if your nuptials don't go off without a hitch.
"If these people had complained to us, they would've had more complaints on their record. And people would've known about it," Stephens said. "If they would've posted things on Facebook or on wedding forums or wedding boards warning other people about what happened to them, that could help warn people away."
One question we had while investigating this story was about research: Did people who chose to hire Alpha & Omega do any background checks?
All of these brides tell us they did their due diligence and researched the company, starting with the BBB. Some went off referrals or the company website testimonials and Facebook page comments.
We also reached out multiple times to the attorney for Alpha & Omega -- Regina Wright -- asking for the other side of the story and proof that counters these claims of wrongdoing. She called the allegations lies but didn't give any specifics to back up that assertion.
When we called her again Monday she told us: "It would be a waste of time to give you a statement."
Tuesday night -- about one hour before this story was to run on television and be posted on the web -- I received a complaint showing her intent to file a defamation lawsuit against the station.
It's still unclear if any of the other brides we talked to will pursue legal action. Many say they either can't afford to or simply don't want to throw any more money at the problem.
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