What Comes Between "A" And "C"? Apparently, If You're The Better Business Bureau, It's $395.

America is full of businesses, big and small. Some are brick-and-mortar, and some exist only as ones and zeroes on this series of tubes we inhabit. One of the main challenges of patronizing businesses is not finding one; it's separating the wheat from the chaff, the fraudsters from the honest businesses, the awful service from the awesome service.

That wheat/chaff thing used to be very inconvenient. The internet has changed it. The internet is choked with sites that accumulate review of stores, restaurants, online services, and everything else that Americans love to spend on. They range from malware sites to abandoned digital ghost towns to online communities so robust that they develop their own cultures and start getting into embarrassing slap-fights with the people they review.

All of this means that the quintessential first-world dilemma — "how do I choose from all of these stores in which I can spend all of my disposable income?" — has been pushed back one level to "how do I choose among all of these online resources that will help me decide what store to go to so I can spend all my disposable income?"

Sensible people know the answer immediately. You don't go to the new, shiny, hipster-intensive, oddly-spelled, trendy websites; you find the online presence of the consumer protection entities that have been serving Americans for generations. You go to the Better Business Bureau, for example.

Well, sensible people, I've got some bad news for you.

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.

Reporters from ABC were able to capture Better Business Bureau representatives telling businesses that their "C" grade could be upgraded to an "A" grade if they paid a membership fee:

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.

In a second case, Carmen Tellez, the owner of a company that provides clowns for parties was also told she had to pay to fix her C- grade, based on a two-year old complaint that she says had already been resolved.

The C minus became an A plus the very next day after she provided her credit card number for the $395 charge.

Other business owners were able to open BBB accounts for Hamas and the white supremacist website Stormfront with "A" grades by paying membership fees. To be fair, those organizations are top-notch at providing customer service, so long as the service you are looking for is getting murdered or reviled based on your race.

The BBB is going with — altogether, now — the ISOLATED INCIDENT excuse. Which, by the way, is exactly the same excuse that the business it rates customarily use.

Believe it or not, I have a point.

The internet is the world's biggest shitty argument by authority. Kids try to source Wikipedia for their term papers. Politicians cite things their aides saw on sites with seizure-inducing crazy-man graphics. Snarky, self-satisfied bloggers act as if a hyperlink settles a point.

But everything on the internet got there because Some Guy put it there. You wouldn't rush to believe Some Guy if you meet him on the street. He probably dresses badly and has odd diction. You shouldn't believe him just because he's got an upjumped GeoCities account, either. You shouldn't believe him just because he makes $400,000 as the head of the Los Angeles Better Business Bureau. You should exercise critical judgment in a country in which marketing things is increasingly divorced from the nature of the things themelves.

I mean, unless that store got an A plus. They must have earned that.

Last 5 posts by Ken White


  1. Dustin says

    Sometimes it blows my minds the little things that lead to massive lawsuits, and the huge things that persist for ages without lawsuits ending the practice.

    I'm sure it's so surprise the BBB has been like this for an awful long time.

    We don't have to rely on other people's word if we use our heads. I have had good and bad experiences with businesses, and the BBB simply doesn't track with my experiences. In many cases, as in hundreds, I have a pretty good idea of how honest a business is. All BBB tracks is BBB cooperation (and apparently fees).

    Wikipedia isn't that bad in some ways. I know a few topics that I've studied in the past that wikipedia is quite reliable about. If you find a wikipedia page with a lot of background discussion that isn't about a celebrity or controversy, you probably can rely on the information. And, of course, it's completely unreliable on anything controversial. At best, you can find what people are trying to delete and read into it, as if it's a tabloid.

    Anyhow, fuck the BBB.

  2. says

    Here's the sad thing: I can actually parse out the chain of reasoning that the BBB used to get to this point.

    "Well, we want to provide up-to-date information."
    "If a complaint is invalid, we should take that down."
    "Makes sense."

    "… as a reminder, we should be focusing our efforts on serving our members first. Anyone can start a business, but we need memberships to keep our lights on."

    "Hey, this complaint is two years old and there's three responses saying it's been addressed."
    "Is the business a member?"
    "Ah, hell. I'll get to it tomorrow."

    "Well, no. What I'm saying is, if you were a member, we could resolve that issue much more quickly."

    "The news? Why should I turn the news … oh."

    That's what's insidious about moral hazard. It creeps up on you so gradually – especially on an institutional level – that you don't even notice it.

  3. says

    Well, my example would be National Consumer Mart, a local scam outfight that charges two thousand dollars for a "membership" in a supposed warehouse discount buying scheme that is triple A rated by the BBB.

    I wonder if that cost more than $395 …