CHARLOTTE, NC (FOX 46 WJZY) - The engagement was perfect. The pictures Angel Mercado paid for were not.
"She's trying to defend poor behavior," Mercado, in tears, told a representative of Attorney General Josh Stein's office. "And, to me, that's very unacceptable considering what she's taken from me."
A month after Mercado told FOX 46 about her experience with Charlotte photographer Eben Patten, she now gets to tell it directly to Stein.
Stein attended FOX 46's "Getting Results Expo," organized by investigative reporter Matt Grant. Stein says he wanted to personally meet with Patten's victims, hear their stories and take their complaints.
"Those pictures are some of the most critical memories that a couple could possibly have," said Stein. "So, if a business is out there making representations about what they're going to deliver, they need to deliver."
FOX 46 wanted to put this event together to help get results for the women who say they were victimized by Patten. More than a dozen told us last month that Patten took thousands of dollars for wedding and engagement photos that were not turned over or not what they expected.
Pictures taken by Patten that were shown to FOX 46 show blurry and overexposed images. Some included random photos of the floor.
Photographers and hair and makeup artists donated free photo shoots and makeovers for Patten's victims. A representative from Stein's office took formal complaints Tom Bartholomy with the Better Business Bureau offered consumer advice. And attorney Walter Bowers answered legal questions.
"Do your homework," said Bartholomy, who says he has received 10 complaints against Patten since 2013. She currently has an "F" rating with the BBB. "It's simple. It's free. And you're going to avoid all this kind of hassle."
Photographer Natalie Schwartz drove more than four hours, from Greenville, N.C., to offer free photo shoots.
"Wedding photography is my heart and soul," said Schwartz. "And this is the least I could possibly do. If I could re-shoot their whole wedding I would."
FOX 46 connected Patten's victims not just with each other but with other businesses that wanted to help. Noah's Event Venue in Charlotte donated their wedding venue. Hair and makeup artists with Kenna Kunijo salon gave several women, and their kids, the royal treatment.
"Our first reaction was what can we do to help these women?," said Mackenzie Spence with the salon. "What can we do to get involved and make it right?"
Ashlyn Armistead, a victim of Patten, drove in from Atlanta. As she was getting her makeup and hair done, before her family got free portraits taken, she said this was worth the trip.
"It's really great to meet some of the other girls that have been through this," said Armistead. "This is just a really nice. Everyone's been super nice...It just kind of helps put something positive" on what had been a "terrible" experience with Patten.
Armistead said she had to fight for months, and threaten Patten with bad social media reviews, before she got her photos. She says she was one of the lucky ones. Other women FOX 46 spoke with never received anything.
"I couldn't imagine not getting those photos back," said Carina Teleha with Carina Studios. "Not seeing those memories and those moments. So that really just got me."
"If we can do anything to right what's been done here I'd love to do that," echoed Anna Whitener, another photographer who offered victims free photo shoots.
Mercado says she wants to prevent other women from being ripped off.
"I feel like my voice has been heard and I'm just really thankful for that," she said. "Thanks FOX 46. I really appreciate it. You guys are the best."
After talking with FOX 46, and aware the attorney general was beginning to investigate, Patten offered her $250, Mercado said. She declined the refund because she had to pay another business $500 to edit the raw video clips that Patten shot from her engagement. She was promised a fully edited video, according to her contract.
Attorney General Josh Stein received five complaints before Thursday's event. He now has a few more cases to look into. His office is now investigating Patten.
Patten, who also goes by Eben Adrian Productions, has declined repeated requests for an interview. She shut down her website after a FOX 46 investigation in September and announced she will not accept any new jobs.
"I am working diligently to address the complaints and use this process as an opportunity to grow and simply do better," Patten wrote online.
How to protect yourself
The Better Business Bureau of Charlotte has advice when dealing with photographers:
- Ask For Recommendations: Contact friends, family members and neighbors for recommendations of trustworthy photographers in your area. Visit bbb.org for a listing of accredited photographers and business profiles. Read reviews and make sure the business does not have any unanswered/unresolved complaints.
- Interview Candidates: Set up interviews to talk to the photographers. Be sure to ask candidates about their photography style and specialties. Be clear about which shots are important to you and under what circumstances thy will be shooting (indoor, outdoor, low lighting, etc.) Note the photographers who make you feel comfortable and have a good rapport with you.
- Request to View Their Portfolio: Before choosing between photographers, request to view their portfolios. Each photographer should have a collection of their best work from previous clients. Make sure you view photos from an occasion that is like the one you are hiring the professional to photograph.
- Compare Pricing: Get at least three estimates and compare pricing and what's included in their packages. Although one photographer may seem less expensive initially, they may not include retouching, a CD/flash drive, online gallery, prints, an album, or other extras you may want. If it's not included, you will end up paying an extra fee for these services you request outside of the package.
- Request References: Request a list of references to contact. Speak to a few of the references about the services they received and if they were satisfied with their photos. Ask about their overall experience with the photographer and if he services went as planned.
- Include All the Details in the Contract: Be sure to get all the finalized details in a written contract including: the final price, payment schedule, all services that are included in the package, travel fees, and the number of hours the photographer will shoot for. Find out beforehand when you will receive the pictures from your special day. Should anything happen, and you don't need the photographer anymore, find out the details fo their refund policy. Inquire about the rights to the photos. Since mos tof your pictures will be available digitally, it's important to discuss if you have the rights to your pictures after the event. You will need to have the rights to the photos if you want to print pictures yourself. Getting the rights to the photographs is usually an additional cost and should be explicitly addressed in the contract.
- If Possible, Pay with a Credit Card: This will help ensure that if something doesn't go as planned, you have a recourse for a refund.
- Don't Pay the Entire Fee Upfront: If possible, set out a payment schedule where you pay a deposit before the shoot or event and the balance after it is over. This will give you some leverage if there are any issues.
The following are businesses that volunteered their services to help the victims of Eben Patten:
- Noah's Event Venue
- Kenna Kunijo Salon
- Anna Whitener Photography
- Natalie Schwartz Photography
- Carina Teleha/Carina Studios
- Melanie Boehm/Golden Collective Photography
- Victor Alpha Clothing
- Better Business Bureau of Southern Piedmont and Western North Carolina
- Attorney Walter Bowers