Tuesday, December 7, 2010

We need a better Better Business Bureau

Until the 1950s member businesses weren't permitted to publicize their [Better Business Bureau] membership; BBB ratings ("satisfactory" or "unsatisfactory" and then, starting in 2009, letter grades) came later still. The BBBs recognized that such publicity might corrupt businesses into using their membership fees to bribe local BBBs. Worse still, it might corrupt local BBBs into using membership fees to shake down businesses, effectively turning the BBB into a protection racket.

That's not far from what has happened, according to a January 2009 article by David Lazarus in the Los Angeles Times and a November 2010 story by Brian Ross of ABC News' 20/20. ...

Lazarus reported that in searching through the BBB's North American database he found that "the roughly 400,000 accredited businesses, even those that get numerous complaints, very often receive higher grades than unaccredited companies with spotless complaint records." ... [BBB spokesman Stephen] Cox conceded to Lazarus that you couldn't qualify for an A-plus unless you were a member company—a criterion the BBB Web site didn't bother to acknowledge. In fact, Lazarus reported, any company could raise its grade by one-half (from B-minus, for instance, to B) merely by joining.

Or maybe by more than one-half. Cameras from 20/20 rolled while two small-business owners phoned the Southern California BBB chapter to complain about their ratings. Both were told by BBB telemarketers that if they joined the BBB their ratings would improve. Both agreed to join, giving their credit card numbers, and both saw their ratings rise within 24 hours—a C and a C-minus each upgraded to A-plus. ...

Most hilariously, Ross reported (as The Big Money's Mitchell had earlier) that a man who goes by the pseudonym "Jimmie Rivers," says he's a former CBS affiliate news director, and runs a blog devoted to lacerating the BBB teamed up with some buddies to pay $425 to register Hamas with the Southern California chapter of the BBB. The terrorist group got an A-minus. For the same price, "Johnnie" scored an A-plus for the white supremacist Web site Stormfront, registering it under the name "Aryan Whitney."
--Timothy Noah, Slate, on the Better Business Bureau mafia

No comments: