BBB getting its own customer complaints

November 15, 2010 8:22:27 AM PST
Vaughn Williams owns Urbana Catering in Raleigh. He went to high school in Raleigh, college at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, and then moved to New York where he was the chef at Planet Hollywood in Times Square.

Now, his successful business is saddled with an F rating from the Better Business Bureau.

"You know, the world view of it is failure," Williams told ABC11 Eyewitness News investigative reporter Steve Daniels. "So they look me up and they see that, and maybe not give me a call. So, it's a problem."

Vaughn has two complaints on the BBB website after eight years of business. He says he resolved the issues with his customers, but the F remains. He's afraid it's hurting his business.

"If you go to the website and see someone who has an A and someone who has an F, you're going to go with the A," he offered.

Vaughn is not alone in his frustration.

In a joint investigation with ABC News, the ABC11 I-Team discovered businesses across America are upset.

"I was incensed," said Terri Hartman of Liz's Antiques in Los Angeles.

Her business had one complaint in the last three years and got a C rating on the BBB website.

That's until they paid the BBB $595 for a membership. Then, they received an A-plus.

"I don't feel good about it. It feels kind of dirty actually to buy an improved grade," said Hartman. "I feel it's not on the up-and-up. I feel like the Better Business Bureau deserves a C-minus [in] their own rating system."

ABC11 spoke with a former journalist who anonymously created the website called BBB Roundup.

"The grading system is broken. There are grades that make no rhyme or reason," offered Roundup blogger "Jimmy Rivers".

Rivers claims the BBB uses consumer complaints to turn around and make money for itself.

"They would take a consumer complaint," said Rivers. "And somehow, they're actually using that to become a telemarketing lead to get a business to enroll."

The president of the Better Business Bureau disputes that and says if that happens it violates BBB policy.

But, Rivers says there are many problems and he calls the BBB the "Bogus Business Bureau".

"The grading system, it just has too many mistakes to be reliable," Rivers offered.

Rivers says he tested the BBB by applying for membership using phony business names. In one case, he paid $425 to get Hamas - the Palestinian political group blamed for terror attacks - accredited.

He listed the owner as Bill Mitchell. In reality, Mitchell is the president of the BBB in Los Angles. No one at the BBB caught it, and gave Hamas an A-minus.

"There's no relevancy to the consumer for that grade. To me, that's a bad system," said Rivers.

Beverly Baskin is the director of the Better Business Bureau in Raleigh - serving eastern North Carolina.

"We don't want to put out bad information, I mean, that's, you know, that's our integrity," she told ABC11.

The Raleigh BBB has about 3,000 member businesses that pay $1.2 million a year in membership fees.

Baskin spoke to ABC11's Daniels one-on-one.

"You have critics who say this sounds a lot like a teacher saying to a kid: 'Slide me some cash and I'll give you an A,'" said Daniels.

"There are always going to be critics," Baskin offered. "There are basically 17 elements that go into a rating … it is the Better Business Bureau's best effort to put forth a meaningful rating that it makes sense to a consumer that says whether or not they are likely to have a good experience with that business and whether or not that business is going to work with the Better Business Bureau to resolve a complaint - a problem - if one arises."

Baskin says the Raleigh BBB operates independently from other BBBs across the country and she stands by her sales people and the accreditation process in Raleigh.

"Is there an inherent conflict in asking a business to pay you for a grade, for accreditation?" Daniels asked.

"But they're not paying for a grade. They're paying…" said Baskin.

"In some cases they are. They get a better grade if they are an accredited business," Daniels responded.

"They get a few additional points that may move them from a half, a B to an A-minus, or from an A-minus to an A, or from and A to an A-plus, that is true," said Baskin.

We asked Baskin about Raleigh caterer Vaughn Williams and his F. She says Vaughn did not respond to the BBB after it asked for his position on the two consumer complaints.

"We have since called the consumers to say: 'Did you ever receive the resolution you were seeking?' And in both cases, they actually had - one seven months later and one three months later - so, the now is he has a C-plus. Thanks to your intervention," said Baskin.

Williams says with his new rating he only appears to be average, and still says that's unfair.

"In this climate, everybody wants to be in good standing because everyone wants to continue doing business, continue to eat, to take care of their employees," he offered.

The BBB president says 500,000 businesses across the country who are not members have an A rating, but the only way to get an A-plus is to become a member.

Click here to watch part two of the I-Team BBB investigation

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