“Buyer Beware” Web postings usually are the domain of seemingly fraudulent car ads, sports ticketing sites and scams targeting the older population.

But bridal designers such as Watters, Jim Hjelm, Lazaro and Maggie Sottero are posting warnings on their Web sites to customers to be wary of buying gowns over the Internet and falling for too-good-to-be-true deals. They advise to only buy from authorized retail dealers listed on their own sites.

This story first appeared in the September 23, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The Internet has made shopping easier for consumers, but it’s also paved the way for counterfeits and knockoffs of gowns typically priced above $2,000 retail. After seasonal markets and runway shows, designers immediately post their photos online, giving ne’er do-wells an opportunity to produce similar garments at lower prices. With a troubled economy and rising bridal gown prices, some brides-to-be are more apt to bite on what seems to be a steal as they search for that coveted designer gown.

“We started seeing this online two years ago and we have an internal reconnaissance team monitoring Web sites,” said Joseph L. Murphy, president and chief executive officer of JLM Couture Inc., whose seven lines include Jim Hjelm, Lazaro and Alvina Valenta. “It costs us money to protect our image and this kind of stealth activity can eat into sales.”

Murphy and others say it’s hard to quantify the damage done to revenues due to the vastness of the Internet. They also note they can flex their legal muscle only so far. Like other items of clothing, wedding dress designs aren’t protected by intellectual property law. But fabrics designs, such as lace patterns, fall under copyright protection, said Mark Brutzkus, a Los Angeles-based apparel attorney.

The biggest problem, Murphy noted, is with the importing of dresses that approximate the real thing, basically copies with no labels that can be had for a few hundred dollars and marked up to $1,000 to $2,000 and bought by some retailers. Counterfeiting is another issue, which involves selling the garment with a fake label, which is illegal and easier to prosecute.

Dallas-based Watters last year began pursuing legal action against bogus, non-U.S.-based companies that were pirating images off the Internet and advertising gowns on the Web for “ridiculously low prices,” said Maria Prince, vice president. “They’re shams, they’re not even delivering the goods.”

Watters has had to face the consumer fallout from such Web companies.

“We get consumers crying, saying the dress they ordered online wasn’t delivered,” she said. “Instead of saving, they’re now spending more and it puts the bind on a legitimate retailer and vendor to quickly service her and produce the garment quickly.”

As to how egregious the production deception can be, Mindy Chung, owner of Jaclyn’s Bridal in Santa Ana, Calif., a 30-year-old boutique that sells Pronovias, Rosa Clara and St. Pucchi, said, “When I go to the market, I’d be at a designer’s booth and someone will whisper to me they have the same dress for less. They’ll have hidden pictures and show them to certain retailers. I wouldn’t buy them, of course, but it’s a big problem.”

Consumer belt-tightening makes the issue worse. Chung said sales at Jaclyn’s Bridal and similar boutiques in the region are down about 30 percent compared with last year. To protect themselves, such retailers as Bella Bridal Gallery, based in West Bloomfield, Mich., are cautioning shoppers on their Web sites from buying online from disreputable resources. Beverly Hills-based Renee Strauss and Kleinfeld in New York do not allow photography in their stores.

“We know shoppers have cell phones and can do all kinds of things, but it’s a gentle reminder,” said Mara Urshel, a principal owner of Kleinfeld, where the average gown retails from $3,500 to $4,500. “We know they’ll shop us and will try to find it for less elsewhere. That will always happen. We have an over 50 percent conversion rate, which is excellent, but sure, we do lose some sales.”

Lower-priced options do abound for shoppers, such as gowns found at David’s Bridal stores. But consumers, well-informed about red carpet-worthy names, always want designer brands for less.

One store that’s found a successful niche is Newton, Mass.-based Vows Bridal Outlet and its bridepower.com Web site, which sells samples and overstocks from designers such as Vera Wang, Oscar de la Renta and Amsale for 50 to 70 percent off regular retail prices. Owner Leslie DeAngelo said she buys directly from the manufacturer or from store liquidations.

“We’re very clear with our brides that these are not new gowns,” DeAngelo said.

The site was news to Watters’ Prince, who didn’t realize some of the company’s discontinued gowns were sold there. She then called the store and learned they’re selling samples purchased from another retailer and the styles weren’t reorderable. “They’re not misleading the customer so I’m OK with that,” Prince said.