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August 2008
Taking A Closer Look
By Janet Kropinak

     We’ve all heard the saying ‘buyer beware’ more times than we can count, but every year, without fail, thousands of unwitting consumers fall victim to scams and unethical business practices. The greedy and gullible may be the easiest target, but as economic times get tough, the struggling and the desperate are just as likely to latch on to the promise of ‘fast cash’ even when their better instincts are telling them it’s too good to be true.

      Trusting your gut might be the first step, but with the sophistication of some of today’s scams, even the smartest consumers are falling prey to these predators and their unscrupulous practices. Enter the bailiwick of the Better Business Bureau of Southern Piedmont (BBB), acting as our watchdog and making it their priority to ensure that local businesses are practicing ethically and that area consumers are fully informed.


Principles of Trust

     Established in 1912, today there are 128 BBBs serving communities across the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico, evaluating and monitoring more than three million local and national businesses and charities.

     Acting as an unbiased organization, the BBB sets and upholds high standards for fair and honest business behavior. Businesses that earn BBB-Accredited business status contractually agree to adhere to the organization’s high standards of ethical business behavior.

     The BBB provides objective advice, free business Reliability Reports and Charity Wise Giving Reports, as well as educational information on topics affecting marketplace trust. Additionally, they act as a mutually trusted intermediary between consumers and businesses in resolving disputes and facilitating communication.

     In furtherance of its mission to create an ethical marketplace, the BBB works to advance marketplace trust, creating a community of trustworthy businesses, setting standards for marketplace trust, encouraging and supporting best practices, celebrating marketplace role models, and denouncing substandard marketplace behavior.

     At the helm of the Southern Piedmont branch of the BBB is Tom Bartholomy, who has over 26 years of experience in total, taking over the Charlotte office in 2001. He recalls his decision to relocate from the Midwest as an easy one, stating he was attracted to the “wide spectrum of business opportunities available in the area,” which he saw as a welcome change to the undiversified Midwest market.

     Bartholomy and his staff of 19 oversee 20 counties—15 in North Carolina and five in South Carolina. Under Bartholomy’s leadership, membership has doubled from 1,650 to 3,200.

     In addition to meeting membership standards, Bartholomy proudly points out that all of the current members are also BBB-Accredited, a new initiative started in 2007. This ensures that all businesses meet the standard requirements along with 13 additional standards, which will be checked annually for compliance.

     BBB Accreditation is an honor—and not every company is eligible, only those who meet the high level of standards are invited to join. All accredited businesses agree to live up to the Principles of Trust of the BBB, a comprehensive set of policies, procedures and best practices focused on how businesses should treat the public—fairly, and honestly in all circumstances.


Integrity and Performance

     In 2007, Bartholomy and his staff received 14,000 formal complaints, and he proudly boasts that 84 percent were successfully resolved, up from 76 percent the year before. A main factor in the increase, according to Bartholomy, is the Internet. Of those 14,000 complaints; 95 percent were filed online.

     “We’ve really worked hard to adjust our business plan to focus more on the Internet and making the Web site easily accessible,” he says. “It has become an integral part of our focus.”

     Allowing consumers full access to a company’s history online has helped alert more people to fraudulent business activity and potential red flags. This year, the BBB of Southern Piedmont will provide information and Reliability Reports on companies to more than 600,000 consumers.

     Bartholomy also credits the Internet accessibility for the decrease in resolution time, down from 39 to 16 days.

     “The Internet plays an increasingly important role for us,” he comments. “It allows us to reach more people and is necessary for us to efficiently track the amount of traffic we see.”

     Although the Internet has been a strong communication tool for the BBB, it also generates a great deal of its activity. That is to say, along with the ability to inform and alert millions of people of fraudulent activity, also comes the opportunity to scam millions of people.

     “Online and e-mail scams are on the rise, and they can be quite difficult to track because of all the complexities involved,” Bartholomy states. “I’ve been in the business for 26 years and the Internet is finding ways to breathe new life back into scams that we never thought we’d see again.”

     Even for those consumers who aren’t Internet savvy, the BBB finds ways to keep them abreast of important information. They have established a program called Senior Grapevine which works to alert senior citizens about scams that might be targeted to them.

     “We are doing a lot of outreach with seniors and are often finding that they, too, appreciate the accessibility of the Web site,” he states.

     The Southern Piedmont office also takes special care in assisting Charlotte’s expanding Latino population. Bartholomy says they offer outreach programs in Spanish designed to promote consumer awareness and knowledge and inform them of the BBB’s resources and assistance.


Trusted Ally

     For a nonprofit organization with no authority over businesses, the BBB’s successful resolution rate speaks volumes to its impact and reputation among the business community, both locally and nationally.

     “The fact that we can’t force anyone to do anything shows that businesses really care about their standing with us and want to do everything they can to resolve situations swiftly,” Bartholomy says.

     Although they have a resolution rate of 84 percent, Bartholomy states that many of the remaining cases often end up out of the hands of the BBB.

     “When we aren’t able to resolve a situation, it is usually because we find that laws are being broken and we need the assistance of a government branch,” he comments. “The BBB is able to act not only as an intermediary between consumers and business, but also as a partner to these other organizations in helping resolve disputes and conflicts.”

     The BBB’s high standards are appreciated and respected among the business community and consumers alike. The BBB recently commissioned a survey, conducted by the Gallup Trust and underwritten by Visa Inc., to measure consumers’ level of trust in 15 different types of companies they do business with regularly.

     The goal for the survey was to understand what consumers believe to be the most important drivers of trust, which industries consumers believe are most/least trustworthy, and how to build resources and tools to advance trust in the marketplace.

     The survey found that nearly one in five (18 percent) adult American consumers say their trust in businesses that they regularly deal with has decreased in the past 12 months, more than twice as many as those who say their trust has increased (8 percent).

     Further specifics show that a good reputation for honesty and fairness ranks as the most important element in determining a company’s dependability, with reliability coming in second.

     This study provides further evidence of the BBB’s importance as a trusted resource to   businesses and consumers.


Dishonesty Never Pays

     Although the BBB resolves thousands of complaints a year, few bring as much media attention as a recent dispute between a group of brides-to-be and La Bella Sposa, a south Charlotte bridal shop. The story made the local and national news, and was even reported on CNN and the Today Show, but Bartholomy and his staff were involved in the debacle first-hand.

     When the shop announced its closing and subsequent bankruptcy in early June, dozens of brides were left with no dresses and no down payments. Leading up to the closing, the BBB had received 43 complaints from disgruntled customers.

     “We don’t generally see such involvement from the media, especially on a national level,” says Bartholomy. “But it really helps in raising the awareness and shows people that they need to be cautious and need to question things that sound even the slightest bit off.”

     Although 43 complaints may seem like a lot, in reality it isn’t that large a number, considering Internet scams often get complaints in the hundreds. But, Bartholomy says, it does help raise a flag and a sense of skepticism, which sadly, in today’s market, is important.

     “The idea behind what we are doing is that we can head off a problem before it becomes one,” explains Bartholomy. “If you have a bad experience or were taken by a company, by your reporting it, we can alert other consumers to be on guard and hopefully prevent it from occurring again.”

     Though a large part of what they do is field complaints from consumers, Bartholomy stresses that their role is as an objective intermediary between the two. “We don’t take sides; we work to find the best solution to the situation so that everyone is happy,” he says.


Education and Awareness

     This fall, the BBB is launching a new grading scale on their Web site that will allow consumers to easily access a letter grade for businesses. The new system, which was designed to do some of the investigative legwork for consumers, will simplify the research process but allow the consumer full access to a businesses report.

     “The new letter grade system has been tested in five markets and was very well received,” says Bartholomy with excitement. “Companies will receive a weighted grade—A, B, C, D, or F—based on 15 different criteria, such as their complaint and resolution ratio.”

     The BBB does what it can to simplify the process for consumers but Bartholomy states the only way to eliminate these problems is for people to become aware themselves and act accordingly.

     “Before you pick a contractor to remodel your house, do your homework,” he says matter of factly. “It can save you, and someone else, a lot of trouble on the back end.”

     Some warning flags to look out for? “Never, in any circumstance, should you have to put money down for a job, says Bartholomy. “These ‘Work at Home’ scams have been around forever but people continue to fall for them.”

      Lottery scams are also on the rise, but Bartholomy says these are easy to avoid: “Just stop for a second and think, ‘Did I play in this lottery?’ and second, ‘Is this too good to be true?’”

     Bartholomy also warns consumers about anything involving cashier’s checks, wiring money or requiring them to put money down. As he says, “It’s easy to get excited by the idea of your financial worries being solved with one letter or one e-mail, but the likelihood of this being a legitimate opportunity is slim to none.”

     So in the future, when you find yourself holding the “winning lottery letter,” or one click away from applying for that “dream job opportunity,” do yourself a favor and get on the Better Business Bureau’s Web site and do a little research. Those few minutes could save you a fortune and a headache.

Janet Kropinak is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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