BBB: Pay for Play?
The Better Business Bureau, one of the country´s best known consumer watchdog groups, is being accused by business owners of running a "pay for play" scheme in which A plus ratings are awarded to those who pay membership fees, and F ratings used to punish those who don´t.
To prove the point, a group of Los Angeles business owners paid $425 to the Better Business Bureau and were able to obtain an A minus grade for a non-existent company called Hamas, named after the Middle Eastern terror group.
"The BBB accreditation and the BBB ratings systems is not about generating money," said BBB national president and CEO Steve Cox. He said the A minus grade for Hamas was given in error. "Plain and simple, we made a mistake," Cox told ABC News.
Errors seem to abound at the Better Business Bureau. As reported by an anonymous blogger the BBB also awarded an A minus rating to a non-existent sushi restaurant in Santa Ana, California and an A plus to a skinhead, neo-Nazi web site called Stormfront.
Each listing cost $425.
"They ran the credit card and within 12 hours they were an approved, accredited member," said the anonymous blogger, who runs a site called bbbroundup.com.
Yet, as part of the ABC News investigation, an ABC News producer with a camera was present as two small business owners in Los Angeles were told by Better Business Bureau tele-marketers that their grades of C could be raised to A plus if they paid $395 membership fees.
Terri Hartman, the manager of a Los Angeles antique fixtures store, Liz´s Antique Hardware, was told only a payment could change her grade, based on one old complaint that had already been resolved.
"So, if I don´t pay, even though the complaint has been resolved, I still have a C rating?"
Hartman then read off her credit card number and the next business day the C grade was replaced with an A plus, and the one complaint was wiped off the record.
The Better Business Bureau, a non-profit group that began 98 years ago, instituted its A plus through F grading system just two years ago, replacing a "satisfactory/unsatisfactory" ratings system.
The ABC News investigation found numerous examples of well-known companies that are not members of the Better Business Bureau being branded with F grades, often apparently based on scant evidence or a small number of complaints.
The five-star Ritz Carlton Hotel in Boston was given a F rating after only two complaints.
"A million customers served, two complaints resulting in an F rating, seems to be somewhat unusual, to say the least, " hotel general manager Erwin Schinnerl told WCVB-TV in Boston.
Celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck told ABC News that parts of his food and restaurant empire have received an F grade because he refused to pay to join the Better Business Bureau.
"You know, if you become a member, you´re sure to get an A, but if you don´t pay, it´s very difficult to get an A," said Puck, who has been a regular on the ABC News program "Good Morning America" since 1986.
"I think where you have to join an organization to get a good grade is wrong," Puck said.