10 Things Your Dry Cleaner Won't Tell You

You expect clean clothes from your dry cleaner. But you could be the one who gets put through the wringer.

1. "We'll take the shirt off your back -- and not give it back."
Winter is nearly over, and you're itching to swap your wool for shorts and T-shirts. But before you send those sweaters to your dry cleaner, realize this: You may never see them again. Dry cleaners have a knack for losing your stuff. According to the Council of Better Business Bureaus, lost items are one of the top three complaints consumers log against dry cleaners. (Damaged garments and stains are the other two.)

Lenore McIntyre knows. Last July she was hung out to dry after Ireland Cleaners, in Richmond, Va., lost three of her tablecloths, valued at $800. For more than two weeks she called the cleaner looking to get reimbursed. When the store manager finally offered her $100, McIntyre told her, "That won't pay for it." According to McIntyre, the manager then replied, "Well, this is all I can do," and hung up. McIntyre later sued Ireland Cleaners in Chesterfield County Civil Court and won a judgment for $820 plus legal fees. Ireland Cleaners has yet to pay. (The cleaner also did not return our calls for comment.)

Ron Berry, senior vice president at the Council of Better Business Bureaus, says disputes over lost items "are where we have the swearing matches. If a dry cleaner acknowledges he lost it, he has to pay for its replacement." He suggests that when you drop off a garment at a cleaner, be sure to ask for a receipt indicating what you had cleaned. It will help your case against a dry cleaner.

2. "You won't get much from us if we ruin your sweater."
At least if a cleaner loses your item, he's supposed to pay the full amount so you can get a new one. But say your blazer comes back with a slash in one arm. You'd want it replaced, right? Well, that doesn't wash with dry cleaners. For damaged goods, the industry standard is to offer the item's depreciated value as listed in the Fair Claims Guide, published by the International Fabricare Institute (IFI), the Silver Spring, Md., association representing 6,000 owners of dry cleaning businesses. Problem is, you won't get much.

Skirts, shirts, cotton suits and silk dresses that are just over a year old and in average condition before the damage are valued at just 40% of the replacement cost. A five-year-old wool blazer in average condition gets you just 15% of what it actually costs. If an item is deemed an heirloom -- say, a couture Chanel suit or an antique Persian rug -- you can get back its market value. But in the eyes of the IFI, that sweater Grandma knit for you is worth the same amount as one from the Gap. As the guide says, "'Sentimental value'...is subjective and is ruled out as a valid consideration."

3. "Good luck proving the damage was our fault."
In cases where you and your cleaner can't agree on who's at fault for damaging an item, the cleaner will probably suggest this solution: send the item to the IFI, which will analyze it and then determine who's to blame for the damages. Trouble is, it's unlikely your cleaner will be found at fault.

Of the 13,000 items that the IFI tested in 2001, cleaners were held responsible just 11% of the time, while the manufacturer was at fault 45% of the time and the consumer 35%. Why the lopsided score? "If a dry cleaner knows he messed up, he's not going to send it in," says Lorraine Muir, manager at the IFI's garment analysis lab. But Ralph Warner, an attorney and executive publisher of legal-advice Web site Nolo.com, questions the impartiality of the IFI, whose funding comes from dry cleaners. Warner has seen cleaners use the IFI reports as supportive evidence in court cases. "It's a trade association,"he says. "They want to sell it as expert opinion, but it's not unbiased opinion."

4. "We clean your clothes with killer chemicals."
In the past 10 years, the number of dry cleaning operations in the U.S. has grown by nearly 50%, to more than 30,000 businesses. That's great news if you like convenience, but not if you worry about the environment. PERC (short for perchloroethylene) is the chemical used to dry-clean your clothes, and this toxic substance is classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a probable human carcinogen. In fact, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that dry cleaning workers they studied over a 36-year period were 25% more likely to die from cancer than the general population.

But you don't have to work at a dry cleaner to be exposed to PERC. Cindy Stroup of the Environmental Protection Agency says that at least half of the national priority sites for toxic waste cleanup are partially contaminated with PERC. And even though the EPA has increased rules in recent years to prevent PERC dumping, violators still percolate. Last May, Michael Rosenberg, owner of Avenue Cleaners in Naugatuck, Conn., pleaded guilty to illegally disposing of PERC in a wooded area, thereby polluting water wells. He's serving 18 months in jail. "There is no doubt that there is significant health and environmental risk with PERC," says Stroup. But Jon Meijer, a vice president at the IFI, stands behind PERC. "It's been used safely and continues to be used safely," he contends.

5. "We could help the environment -- but why bother?"
It may defy logic, but water can be used to clean dry-clean-only clothing. The process, though, is hardly catching on -- there are only about 10 wet cleaning facilities in the country. "Cost is an issue," says the IFI's Meijer. "Wet cleaning requires far more labor, and you tend to need a lot more space." Meijer adds that wet cleaning is effective on only 40% of clothing. But the EPA's Stroup classifies such claims as "baloney." She contends that "virtually everything that can be dry-cleaned can be wet-cleaned."

Peter Sinsheimer, director of Occidental College's Pollution Prevention Education and Research Center, would certainly agree. A recent test he conducted with several dry cleaners in Southern California showed that wet cleaning lowered an operator's costs by between 17 and 51%, and garments and other items came out as clean as when dry-cleaned. (Plus, costs to the consumer stayed the same.) "We've shown you can do this," says Sinsheimer. Meijer doesn't buy the results, though. "You can't wet-clean garments 100%," he contends.

6. "We're masters of the bait-and-switch routine."
The sign on a Dallas dry cleaner's window caught Eric Kaindl's eye: Laundered shirts -- 79 cents. But Kaindl got the real eye-opener when he picked up the three shirts he had dropped off. The cleaner charged him $1.50 a shirt. Why the price hike? Because they were his uniform shirts for work, even though the sign didn't spell out any such exceptions. "They just said, if you want your shirts, this is what you've got to pay for them," says Kaindl.

Edward Johnson, president and CEO of the metro Washington, D.C., BBB, warns that dry cleaners' deceptive advertising practices can come in different forms. For instance, the "meet or beat" gimmick is one in which a cleaner claims he'll match or beat a competitor's price. Here's the hitch: According to Johnson, only after the cleaning do you find out that you needed a copy of the other cleaner's price list to qualify. In such cases, Johnson says, consumers have little recourse but to pay the bill and then find a different cleaner to use.

7. "We take new brides to the cleaners."
Your daughter is going down the aisle soon? Watch out. Jonathan Scheer, a gown preservationist in New York City, says too often clients ask him to restore wedding dresses that have been damaged when dry-cleaned. Unfortunately, he can't always save the keepsake, as Meredith Jowers Lees learned.

Last fall Lees brought her $2,800 white silk satin Amsale gown to Watkins Cleaners in Birmingham, Ala., a wedding gown specialist, hoping to have a large stain removed. When she went to pick up the dress, though, Lees says it was yellowed, torn and still stained -- and now she's considering suing the cleaner for damages. "You cannot replace something that has that kind of sentimental value," she says. But John Watkins, the store owner, who did not charge Lees for the work, contends he did not mishandle the dress. "We told her at the beginning it was a risk. The dress was very much damaged when it came in."

A bride's best move, Scheer says, is to thoroughly research the cleaner she uses and have a "low tolerance for risk, because the danger is, the dress will be ruined."

8. "Ladies get special treatment: We charge them more."
Wedding gowns aren't the only items with which dry cleaners starch women. In a sampling of New York City cleaners, we found cases where dry-cleaning a woman's shirt costs twice as much as for a man's shirt. "Gender-pricing has been going on for years," says the BBB's Berry. Even when a woman brings in the same type of garment as a man (say, an Oxford shirt), she's often charged more.

The IFI's Meijer says women's shirts often cost more to clean due to machinery, not male chauvinism. Women's generally smaller sizes often don't fit the machines that clean men's shirts. The result?They have to be cleaned by hand, at a higher cost. But to Berry, "for something that's common to both sexes, it's hard to see why there's any price difference."

9. "Our customer service stinks."
In 2001 the Better Business Bureau logged 4,451 complaints against the dry cleaning industry, making it the 21st-worst offender among the 1,000 businesses for which the BBB tracks complaints. That's a 10.6% increase from the previous year's 4,024 complaints. There's an even bigger wrinkle: When it comes to resolving a complaint in good faith or to the customer's satisfaction, dry cleaners have an unusually low settlement rate -- 34.6% compared with 66% for all other businesses. "It's not the initial problem but the lack of follow-through to solve the problem that spurs people to file complaints," says Jeannette Kopko, a senior vice president of the BBB serving Dallas and northeast Texas.

Tosha Walden knows what it's like to go through the wringer. Despite multiple calls and visits, she could never reach Faye Strong, the owner of Strong Cleaners in Macon, Ga., to discuss how her off-the-shoulder top had come back with the elastic stretched out. Finally, she wrote Strong a letter. In response, Strong fired back that she was "utterly shocked" Walden had planned to wear her outfit to "any place other than to bed," and that "the loss of your business is a welcome event." Only after Walden filed a complaint with the BBB did she receive a $30 check from Strong, who still snidely wrote in the memo area, "To get rid of Tosha Walden." Strong did not return our calls for comment.

10. "We ignore what the courts tell us to do."
As Lenore McIntyre discovered, there's no guarantee small claims court will clean up your dry cleaner's mess. Even if the judge rules in your favor, it can be difficult for you to get your money. For dry cleaners who fail to pay voluntarily, as in McIntyre's case, you can either have a law enforcement official go to the cleaner to get your money or directly withdraw it from a cleaner's bank account. But getting a withdrawal can be tricky. Tom Gallagher, president and CEO of the BBB of Central Virginia, says many dry cleaners operate under a number of names. "It could be that the dry cleaner buys another dry cleaning shop that has a good reputation and they want to maintain loyalty," he says. For whatever reason, it often means cleaners have bank accounts under other names, making it even more difficult for you to claim your money.

Jenise Arnao, a court clerk at the Kings County Courthouse in Brooklyn, N.Y., says she sees at least two cases a week involving dry cleaners. In most instances, Arnao says, the plaintiff wins. But that's hardly a victory. "It's hard to collect" due to the name issue, says Arnao. Plaintiffs often have to file multiple times to get a match, usually giving up after several tries.