Grading the Better Business Bureau
Is the BBB a consumer watchdog or a toothless lapdog? What’s really behind those charges that businesses have to pay to play.
Long considered an impartial arbiter of who’s scamming whom (and who’s not), the Better Business Bureau—a “federated association” of locally run bureaus—has been facing questions lately about its very mission. Among them:
• Can anyone pay dues ($300 and up) and become a highly rated member? The ABC news program 20/20 reported late last year that a group of disaffected Los Angeles business owners and a man who started an anti-BBB blog called bbbroundup.com banded together and paid dues for fake companies in a “sting” of the BBB. They named one Hamas, after the pro-Palestinian organization classified as a terrorist group by the U.S. government. The BBB gave Hamas a rating of A- within 12 hours of processing the group’s credit card, according to the blogger, a former CBS newsman known by the pseudonym Jimmie Rivers. Daniel Steiner, a trade practice analyst in the BBB’s Los Angeles area office, says the applicant pronounced the group “HAY-mas,” not “ha-MAS,” throwing off staffers trying to check out what they were told was “a youth counseling organization.” Adds Steiner, “It was a campaign to discredit us, and we were duped.” Interviewed by walletpop.com’s Consumer Ally, Rivers described the organization’s accreditation process as a “boiler room,” where, according to former employees, representatives are expected to fill quotas and earn commissions of up to 40 percent. Today, Susan Kearney of the national BBB says, the CEO of that bureau has left, “and the sales process is uniform now.”
• If a business doesn’t pay dues, does it get a lower grade? That’s what bbbroundup.com claims, pointing out that Starbucks in Seattle was slapped with a BBB grade of F. (It is not a member of the BBB.) Disneyland, another nonmember, also received an F. After bloggers questioned both grades, they were eventually changed to a B and an A+, respectively. (Steiner says Disneyland had “a lot of unanswered complaints,” which lowered its grade temporarily until the park changed its procedures. The Seattle BBB bureau says Starbucks raised its grade last August by answering complaints at the corporate instead of store level.) The Nevada-based business Incorp Services, Inc., went so far as to sue its local chapter of the BBB, claiming it had been graded poorly after refusing to pay the accreditation fee. The suit has since been settled, says Kearney, and Incorp Services has been accredited.
• Do customers have to pay the BBB to have complaints resolved? David Segal wrote recently in the New York Times about PC Drivers Headquarters, a software seller in Austin, Texas, which had over 312 complaints filed against it with the BBB. Nevertheless, the agency gave the seller an A+ rating. The BBB says that 312 complaints are not too many, because the company is categorized as a giant business. The BBB’s policy is to offer mediation services to customers whose complaints can’t be resolved through talk, e-mail, and reason. But the Austin area’s BBB charges $70 for those services—more than one dissatisfied customer was trying to recoup.
WHAT’S A CONSUMER TO DO?
• Look for changes at the BBB. Kearney says, “The coming months may see some changes. We’re not perfect, but we try to be because people expect it of us … We’re hoping this is old news now.” George Gombossy of ctwatchdog.com, a Connecticut-based consumer website, still recommends lodging complaints with the BBB “because if there’s a pattern in the complaints, it’ll show up,” he told AARP the Magazine.
• Tap other sources for company reviews. These days, it’s easy to turn to a customer-driven site like yelp.com to see whether a firm is worth your business. Or head to the company’s Facebook page if it has one. Many will now let you see negative feedback as well as positive. And be sure to check out ftc.gov and the new complaint database at saferproducts.gov, where you can get the lowdown on product recalls.
• Rely on social networking to voice dissatisfaction. A new location-based mobile app called Gripe gives merchants 48 hours to address or resolve your complaint before simultaneously posting your bad review of a product or service to your Facebook page, Twitter account, and the company’s customer-service department. Just make sure to tweet for what you want. “Get the company’s attention and request their help,” author Guy Winch (The Squeaky Wheel) tells the blog flooringtheconsumer.com. “Tweeting ‘Help @Company! The shoes u sent are the wrong size. Wedding is in two days!’ is far more productive than ‘@Company sucks! I’m never ordering from you again!’ ”