Avoid Internet crooks with the BBB Online Reliability Program

BBB vetts online businessesWith close to 200 million Web sites on the Internet, how can you be sure you're dealing with ethical companies? Can you be sure that they aren't just simply phishing sites that exist only in the twisted mind of a criminal? One thing I look for is the sign of the Better Business Bureau's Online Reliability Program.

I had the opportunity to speak via phone with the BBB's vice president of training and education, Steven Salter, about this program. He told me that it was launched in 1996-97, when lots of start-ups were beginning to do business on the Web. At the time, he said, there were attempts to establish quality-assurance entities, which all too often ended up being "two guys in a garage."
Today the Bureau's Online Reliability Program has around 70,000 merchants as participants, companies that have agreed to meet the principles for ethical business-to-customer contact and follow the BBBOnLine Code of Online Business Practices. These companies can be found at BBB.org or local Better Business Bureaus, of which there are 108 in the U.S. and 14 in Canada.

The five principles call for:
  1. Truthful and accurate communications: meaning, in part, no deceptive or misleading advertising.
  2. Disclosure: Each merchant agrees to share information about the company, products, services, and operations. No shipping cost surprises, no bait and switch, here.
  3. Information practices and security: Merchants clearly state their privacy policy, take care to safeguard customer information, and honor their e-mail preferences.
  4. Customer satisfaction: Members honor customer representations, respond to their questions, and, if necessary, follow the Bureau's dispute resolution process.
  5. Protect children: Companies take care when marketing to children to "recognize their developing cognitive abilities."
I think the areas that the Bureau's efforts are particularly valuable are in advertising and dispute resolution. As Salter notes, there is a general lack of oversight of Internet advertising, and the grandiose has become the commonplace. Bureau members agree to make only claims that can be substantiated, to clearly identify advertising as such, and make clear the parameters for price comparisons.

Last year the U.S. BBB received 948,305 complaints, of which 700,194, or 73.8%, were settled. It has an orderly process using mediation to attempt to find a way that the customer's complaint can be satisfied fairly. On its Web site you can search by company for customer reports and in-depth information about how well or poorly it carries out its business.

While a BBB shield is not a absolute guarantee of a good experience (it is, after all, based on past history and avowed business intentions) in the wild west of the Internet, it is one good way to find a little safer pasture in which to shop.
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