The Better Business Bureau's slogan is "Start with Trust" -- but not so fast. It seems they have inherent conflicts of interest, at least for an organization that has always positioned itself as a go-to source for consumers looking for unbiased ratings.
The BBB is not a government agency and their vetting or verification process is largely unknown. On the flip side, its membership sales process has been known to be aggressive. And that's where allegedly blurred lines are raising questions about what it takes to "earn" an A from the BBB, and whether you can -- or worse yet, have to -- pay to improve your rating.
We asked the Better Business Bureau for an on-the-record comment. "There have been mistakes made," said spokesperson Shelia Adkins. She went on to emphasize that the 16 factors the BBB uses to rate businesses are the same for accredited (read: paying) and non-accredited (read: haven't ponied up) members. I asked if the organization had reviewed the 16 factors in light of recent scrutiny and she said they had. It's no wonder, with on-camera video like this captured by the ABC News program 20/20 floating around speaking for itself.
Are BBB Scores for Sale?
And just out Wednesday, FeeFighters, a comparison shopping website for credit card processing that prides itself on being "financial ninjas who fight to help business owners keep more of their money" came out swinging, with a blog post titledThe BBB is a F*&#ing Scam. They're not particularly stealthy about having their own vested interests in the discussion. That said, they allege that consumers are in the dark when it comes to one category particularly riddled with fraud -- credit cards and processing. They find the BBB ratings in these areas suspect at best.
I spoke with Sheel Monhot, director of business development for FeeFighters and the author of the post and he didn't beat around the bush: "It's like extortion," he said. "They tell people 'If you pay, we can take another look,' and hundreds of dollars later, your score goes up." The fee is based on the size of the company, in the $400 to $3,5000 a year range.
Yikes. So, nearly 100 years of "trust" down the drain? At a minimum, it seems we shouldn't put too much stock in a BBB rating. Increasingly, it makes sense to do your own research, perhaps starting with a post on your social networking page (e.g., "Hey, friends: Have any of you ever done business with X?")
Even if you move to acceptance on the idea that businesses are potentially being able to buy better ratings, it's hard to get over the fact that the entity you thought you could always count on in the clutch actually also charges for complaint resolution. You can file a complaint for free, but should you and the business in question not be able to resolve things, mediation doesn't come cheap; apparently some bureaus have given $250-500 quotes. If you have an issue, take it to blogosphere: You'll likely affect real pubic opinion ratings a lot faster and get a quicker response. At this rate, consumers will start to put more stock in transparent consumer comments than veiled, somewhat suspect BBB ratings.