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October 14, 2004

The Useless Business Bureau
Posted by Teresa at 12:50 PM * 34 comments

When you’re keeping track of publishing scams, one of the odd things you learn is that the Better Business Bureau is no damned use at all. In fact, it’s worse than useless, because it gives people the impression that their complaints have been received by a responsible organization, and it responds to queries with false information.

Repeatedly, all over the country, you see cases where you absolutely know for certain that the local BBB has received multiple complaints about some scam operation that’s operating in their area; but when they’re asked about that business, the BBB gives it a clean bill of health.

You know from Poetry.com? The outfit that’ll respond to any poem, no matter how dreadful, with a happy letter saying it’s a semi-finalist in their latest poetry competition, so would the author like to purchase a copy of the anthology in which it will appear? Poetry.com’s local Better Business Bureau says it knows of no complaints against them. It’s received dozens, more likely hundreds.

At the point that the FBI was boxing up the contents of the Deering Agency’s offices, and quite a few fully documented complaints had been made about them, their local BBB was still vouching for the Deerings’ unblemished reputation. The same goes for the Janet Kay Agency, the contents of whose offices were toted off to a Texas jail cell for safekeeping a little while back, and whose employees were similarly toted off a bit more recently.

There are lots more. Yog and Victoria can tell you all about them.

I can’t see any reason why the Better Business Bureau should particularly single out publishing scams, so I’ll assume they’re equally negligent when complaints come in about businesses of other sorts. My question is this: What are those guys in the BBB actually doing?

Comments on The Useless Business Bureau:
#1 ::: Larry Brennan ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2004, 01:05 PM:

They're collecting dues, opening and shredding the mail, and printing up certificates of good standing. And let's not forget paying the staff.

To be fair, the BBB does kick companies out; just not often enough.

#2 ::: Suzanne ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2004, 01:26 PM:

Dale glanced up from his monitor, noticed the teetering stack of unopened mail had grown again since last he had looked at it.

"Frank!" he yelled, turning his attention back to his computer. "Frank, can you get to some of the mail today?"

"I don't think so," came the reply from farther back in the office. "I'm a little... um, a little... hang on... Damn, wrong place. I'm a little busy here, Dale."

Betty came in, put down her purse, and hung her sweater over the back of her chair. "Answering machine is full again," she said, coming to stand beside Dale's workstation. "How are you doing?"

"About the same as usual," Dale said.

Betty peered over his shoulder. "Rotate, rotate! No, counterclockwise!" she suddenly yelled. "Yes! Now DROP!"

She smiled at him as his monitor flashed. "One more row down. See? You're almost at the next level."

"Great," Dale grumbled. "Now it's going to speed up."

She patted him on the back, then took her own seat. "Hey, a couple more years and you'll have it mastered," she said.

Somewhere in the office a phone was ringing again. "Can someone answer that, or unplug the damn thing?" he yelled, but no one was listening to him any longer.

#3 ::: Sarah ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2004, 01:32 PM:

For those of you who haven't seen it:

The story of Wergle Flomp and www.poetry.com

http://windpub.com/literary.scams/wergle.htm

#4 ::: Ayse Sercan ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2004, 02:28 PM:

As I understand it, the BBB "clears" a business if they respond to the BBB about the complaint. Not if they resolve the issue, or change their practises, but if they respond to the BBB.

So the only thing they can tell you is if a company is so awful they can't even respond to the BBB.

#5 ::: Jimcat Kasprzak ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2004, 02:53 PM:

Sarah recommends:

The story of Wergle Flomp and www.poetry.com

WARNING: not safe for work. Fits of laughter emanating from the vicinity of your desk may arouse suspicions in your boss or cow orkers.

#6 ::: Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2004, 02:55 PM:

I think this demonstrates a basic flaw in the Libertarian idea that businesses will regulate themselves in the absence of government oversight.

Businesses have an incentive to provide an appearance of safety, but actually fighting the bad guys is an awful lot of work.

Also, how centralized is the BBB? It wouldn't surprise me if there were a few local BBBs with someone masochistic in charge, who actually tries to track down the bad guys, a few local BBBs that are willingly closing one eye to known scammers, and the vast majority that are just trying to keep the pile of letters in the shredder's inbox from falling on the floor.

#7 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2004, 03:21 PM:

The Baltimore BBB [www.baltimore.bbb.org] lists poetry.com as a member, along with eight other vanity publishers, and says, "Based on BBB files, this company has a satisfactory record with the Bureau. Any complaints processed by the Bureau in its three-year reporting period have been resolved. The number and type of complaints are not unusual for a company in this industry. The Better Business Bureau has received complaints against the company that allege non-delivery of publications. The company has responded to complaints by fulfilling the order or issuing refunds. The company explains that there is sometimes a delay in releasing a book because the book is a compilation of poetry and they sometimes have to delay publication pending receipt of the authors' approval of their work."

Apparently the Maryland BBB views vanity publishers as legitimate businesses. They do, however, give an actual address for the business.

#8 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2004, 03:22 PM:

What's the BBB doing? Exactly what their name would indicate, of course: making business better.

You know that all consumer protection laws and regulations are opposed as "bad for business," right? Well, the BBB is doing something about it, by gum. By providing a place for complaints to go, they help keep people from getting legal about it; they help businesses engage in highly profitable practices without risking their reputations.

It all makes sense if you think like a Republican.

#9 ::: Sarah ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2004, 03:29 PM:

Jeremy--

I think it's a better demonstration of the Libertarian argument that in the presence of slipshod and ineffectual regulations--poorly conceived and more poorly executed--nothing gets fixed.

#10 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2004, 03:40 PM:

Then there's the United States Chamber of Commerce.

On their public literature, they honestly represent themselves by saying "When it comes to representing American business—strength and reputation matter. That's why 3 million companies of all sizes look to us to advance their interests before Congress, government agencies, and the courts."

However, I found it useful for networking purposes to be a Member of the Altadena Chamber of Commerce when I owned and operated a 3-room office "Sherlock Holmes Resume Service."

When I was elected to the Altadena Town Council, I ousted a popular incumbent councilman who was also the President of the Altadena Chamber of Commerce. Repercussions ensued.

When the Altadena Chamber of Commerce nominated for Citizen of the Year a corrupt official, who was deeply involved in a scandal about $250,000 in unmarked bills from a narcotics sting operation buried in a councilman's lawn, I decided to be involved in an Altadena Chamber of Commerce election. That election was so blatantly rigged (late snailmailing of notice of a change of election time and place, so that only insiders knew, and reelected themselves) I wrote a letter asking for an investigation. I sent the letter to the United States Chamber of Commerce, because the local person who'd signed me up for the (paid) membership said that they were the umbrella group above all the local Chambers of Commerce, I sadly discovered that there was no connection other than linguistic between local Chambers of Commerce and the United States Chamber of Commerce. After the fact, others told me that this misrepresentation was a well-known scam.

My stupidity, to be sure. But it seems to support Jeremy Leader's identifying of "a basic flaw in the Libertarian idea that businesses will regulate themselves in the absence of government oversight."

By the way, several people went to jail over said scandal, and I dropped out of local politics. Too dirty, and to overlapping with sleazy local business practices.

#11 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2004, 03:50 PM:

Whoops. "... too overlapping..."

My editorial and copyediting abilities have burnt out. Here's a possible reason why. Please bear with me to get to the point about fonts.

I worked around the clock for a few days to write an Appellate Opening Brief in Carmichael v. Palo/Haklar, a case involving my wife, who worked with me for 9 months for a couple of crooked Hollywood producers. We put out a successful CD-ROM a decade ago, and never got paid.

I sued and won. They appealed and won. I got a
unanimous review by the California Supreme Court,
which upheld the trial, and then things went haywire and I never collected a penny. Now my wife's suit is into appeal. I got the lengthy document ready a couple of hours before the deadline. The court clerk said that I'd used a 12-size font, and that the NEW local court rules required at least a 13 font, so I had to travel back from LA to Pasadena, refont, which changed
the length to just beyond the limit, reedit, and
repaginate the Tables of Contents and Authorities. I finally struggled back, through rush hour traffic, minutes before the drop-dead court-ordered deadline. The clerk groaned.

"What font is that?"

"14-point, as you asked. Thank you for insisting that I edit. I painstakingly eliminated words from most sentences, and sentences from most paragraphs. Good editorial request, ma'am."

"Okay, but it's not 14-point ROMAN type. That's what the rules now specify."

"But you didn't tell me..."

To cut short a long and painful story, she eventually agreed to get the Presiding Judge to decide whether or not to accept the subtly unnacceptable manuscript. He did, but I was warned never NEVER to do such a thing again.

I've drawn this conclusion.

Why did this court (and some Federal Courts, I'm told) change their rules to demand larger type?

BECAUSE JUSTICE IS BLIND!


#12 ::: Kevin Andrew Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2004, 03:58 PM:

From what I concluded long ago, the BBB is not the list of better businesses, but simply the businesses who paid to be in their directory and thought a pretty plaque on the wall might be good for sales. Even though such a plaque is actually more code for "stodgy relic from the 60s," not any guarantee of excellence or even basic quality.

#13 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2004, 05:38 PM:

Okay. So what's the organization's tax status?

#14 ::: Larry Brennan ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2004, 06:40 PM:

From BBB.org: Your local Better Business Bureau® (BBB) is a nonprofit organization supported by local businesses.

A little googling around reveals that most (if not all) of the local chapters are non-profits incorporated under section 501(c)(6). No clarity on the parent organization.

The exact significance of this isn't clear to me as I'm no lawyer, but it does mean that they shouldn't be piling up an unreasonable amount of net income.

****

JVP - Judge's Local Rules. Read 'em and love 'em, 'cause you've got no choice.

I used to be an IT manager for a Wall St. law firm. We kept comprehensive files of all of the parts where we were likely to file, and always sent a clerk over to verify that documents would be in compliance.

Judges can be petty tyrants. You may have been cut some slack due to self-representation.

#15 ::: Christopher Davis ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2004, 07:35 PM:

501(c)6 is a trade organization IIRC; one I worked with at one time was the Commercial Internet Exchange.

Different limitations than the more well-known 501(c)3, mostly having to do with the ability to lobby. (Surprised?)

#16 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2004, 09:20 PM:

Christopher, so which one can't lobby? Inquring minds (Board member of a real, year-old 501(c)3 organization) want to know.

#17 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2004, 09:33 PM:

I believe it's 501(c)3s that can't lobby. That's the classification for educational organizations.

#18 ::: Christopher Davis ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2004, 10:38 PM:

[Huge disclaimer: do I look like a lawyer? No. Am I a lawyer? Hell no. This is all "best of my knowledge" stuff.]

Teresa is correct. 501(c)3 charitable organizations cannot lobby (much; they "may engage in some lobbying, but too much lobbying activity risks loss of tax-exempt status"); 501(c)6 "business leagues" (the IRS's apparent official term) can lobby all they want, since they're designed as organizations of businesses with a "common business interest".

501(c)6 Exemption requirements:

Seeking legislation germane to the common business interest is a permissible means of attaining a business league's exempt purposes. Thus, an Internal Revenue Code ("IRC") section 501(c)(6) business league may further its exempt purposes by lobbying as its sole activity without jeopardizing its exempt status. However, a section 501(c)(6) organization that engages in lobbying may be required either to notify its members about the percentage of dues that are used for lobbying activities or to pay a proxy tax.

Compare with 501(c)3 Exemption Requirements:

IRC section 501(c)(3) organizations are restricted in the amount of political and legislative (lobbying) activities they may conduct. For a detailed discussion, see Political and Lobbying Activities.

#19 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2004, 11:39 PM:

I have seen the national organization call out internet retailers as troublesome, and I think the BBB does do some reasonable stuff locally. They have a generally good rep with consumer organizations, though they are a business group. Perhaps the Baltimore BBB is just corrupt? Or sincerely believes that vanity publishers are legitimate businesses? A letter to the national organization might be in order.

#20 ::: Mark Wise ::: (view all by) ::: October 15, 2004, 07:40 AM:

Ayse Sercan said:

"As I understand it, the BBB "clears" a business if they respond to the BBB about the complaint. Not if they resolve the issue, or change their practises, but if they respond to the BBB.

So the only thing they can tell you is if a company is so awful they can't even respond to the BBB."

This is exactly the case. I contaced the BBB re: a recent dispute with a home warranty company. The BBB got a response from the company, so the issue is 'resolved.' Rrrrrright. It takes three Bs to spell "worthless"; who knew?

#21 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: October 15, 2004, 09:19 AM:

A co-worker used to work for the Tennessee Division of Consumer Affairs. Her observation on the BBB? "Useless". Essentially, they have no enforcement powers; as others have noted here, if the erring business answers their letter, it's all settled. If you want real action, it's whatever the equivalent of Consumer Affairs is where you live; they can do a variety of interesting things to people and businesses who do wrong, given that they can call down various enforcement boards, the sales tax people, and other disasters until things are settled. Depending on the state, some of these offices are more effective than others.

Of course, all too many bad people, in many fields, are not nailed because, however vilely they do business, they are delivering what they advertised, just not they way their victims imagined it--or else what they deliver is not what their victims really needed.

#22 ::: Cherie Priest ::: (view all by) ::: October 15, 2004, 11:29 AM:

I think Dave Barry (http://weblog.herald.com/column/davebarry/) probably has the most fun with poetry.com. Every now and again he encourages his readers to contribute their works on preposterous topics, submitting them under terrible, unlikely pseudonyms.

By the time the poetry.com moderators catch up to him, there are typically hundreds of nonsensical entries on topics such as "how the dog ate mother's toes."

Ah, good times.

#23 ::: Simon ::: (view all by) ::: October 15, 2004, 04:47 PM:

baltimore.bbb.org wrote of poetry.com, "The number and type of complaints are not unusual for a company in this industry."

That's the problem, isn't it?

#24 ::: Evil Genius ::: (view all by) ::: October 15, 2004, 09:02 PM:

Well, of course that number and type of complaints aren't unusual for a company of that type when you consider just how many companies there are like poetry.com within the industry. ;)

#25 ::: Ola G. Nordhus ::: (view all by) ::: October 16, 2004, 07:50 PM:

Well, at the bottom of the page, under the heading Addition File Information the Baltimore BBB at least gives a description of what Poetry.com actually does:

The company is a vanity publisher of hardbound anthologies, which feature amateur poets, of paperback volumes of poetry by single authors, and of a magazine for amateur poets. The books are not distributed and cannot be found in bookstores. They are only distributed to those who pay to have their work included. The quality of the poetry does not appear to be a significant consideration for selection for publication. However, according to the company, poems containing obscenities or offensive language are rejected.

#26 ::: Clark E Myers ::: (view all by) ::: October 17, 2004, 07:48 PM:

I suspect:
- or at least a testable hypothesis given enough anecdotal stories -

the local BBB, perhaps also a local Chamber of Commerce

acts as a barrier to entry and promotes a capture theory of regulation for local businesses.

That is local plumbers may gang up - use the Chamber of Commmerce/ Better Business Bureau - on another plumber taking advantage and so perform a function, perhaps a useful one, from the consumer's perspective.

This implies some plumbers are different - perhaps more honest, perhaps more reputable or more jealous of their reputations.

Enforcing plumbers may linger in business longer and rely more on repeat business. Such repeat business may be from either their own previous customers or from the disfavored business's old customers.

I wonder how much of the above analysis applies to Vanity Operations?

What are the differences among vanity operations that would lead to sustained (as opposed to I'm not like him spot sales pitches) dog eat dog behavior?

Con men - indeed everyone with a product to sell - may, correctly I think, view any knock on the competition as a knock on the industry. It follows that perhaps fewer Vanity Publishers are really saying I'm not like those other guys and making it stick over time.

Notice (perhaps in line with some previous taxonomy of cons around here?) that you still can't cheat an honest man but here the dishonesty may be internal in kidding oneself as much as in seeking an advantage over others?

#27 ::: JamesG ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2004, 08:16 PM:

They will even go so far as to pull poems from your website. I recieved a letter from American Poets Society asking me for permission to print on of my poems in their anthology. They weren't offering me a stipend but they did offer a nice discount, if I wanted a copy. Not only could I get a copy of the book for $40(+$8.00 S+H) but I could also get a personalized Poetry Plaque for the low low cost of $50 (+$8.00 S+H). Needless to say it went immediately into file 13.

I also recieved a letter from Dorrance: One of our researchers has discovered your manuscript and has forwarded your name to me as a possible candidate for publication with our company.

What do they mean found? I never sent them one. Of course one good thing came out of it, my google search on them to see what they were about led me to this blog. Which I have enjoyed reading for several days now.

#28 ::: RJ ::: (view all by) ::: November 26, 2005, 06:20 PM:

I began a small business, and the BBB continued to call with offers to be placed on a list of recommendations to consumers, and to “join” the BBB. I asked how much this would be, and they told me $385.00 a year. I began to ask people that I knew owned small businesses, and some told me that they were paying somewhere in the park of $600.00 to $1,000.00 a year. Some said that they were of no help at all, and they know that their competition were scamming consumers, and those consumers were making complaints, but the BBB were still stating that those businesses were good to do business with.

Someone should do something about this organization! When they began, they did really good things to protect consumers, but now, they have turned to just making a profit! What is this country coming to? Thanks for listening to me.
RJ

#29 ::: Mario ::: (view all by) ::: July 03, 2006, 05:57 PM:

my letter to the useless BBB of NJ>..

July 3, 2006


Better Business Bureau of New Jersey
1700 Whitehorse Hamilton Square Rd.
Suite D-5
Trenton, NJ. 08690-3596

VIA FACSIMILE w/confirmation: 609-588-0546

Re. Mack Camera Service & YOUR Letter Dated June 26, 2006

Sir/Madame

Please stop sending me your insipid form letters with the defendant’s lies. There is no point to any of this ridiculous exercise since you do nothing more than propagate whatever fiction these companies tell you.

For the record, to this date, July 3, 2006, Mack Camera Service HAS NOT FIXED THE CAMERA. Can you understand this?

Irrespective of Mack’s penchant for blaming UPS and my spouse and China and Martians and heavens knows who else, the fact remains that – as you can readily confirm if you even had a modicum of interest – Mack “claims” to returning the camera FIVE MONTHS AFTER THEY RECEIVED IT and the owner of the camera (ME) has certified that NINE MONTHS AFTER MACK RECEIVED THE CAMERA THE CAMERA IS STILL NOT FIXED.

Doesn’t the BBB understand that you actually make matters worse? A consumer is already distraught and wasting a great deals of time and energy fighting with the lies and obfuscation of these dishonest companies. So instead of helping, all you do is pass paper along, causing more grief since now the consumer has to reply (within a certain arbitrary time frame of course) to your noise which is nothing more than the spin spun by the same companies.

Mack Camera got away with charging for a service that they did not perform, and denied a consumer the use of his camera. Corporate America at its best – good for them.

Don’t contact me again.

Respectfully

Mario R. Sanchez, Ph.D.

#30 ::: xx ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2009, 05:08 AM:

I complained to the BBB about a local business because they badly overcharged me, promised to return some of the fee and then reneged - and refused to respond to several efforts the local BBB made to contact them. Over a year later, the business owner decided he wanted to join the BBB and wrote to me, admitting he had deliberately lied to me and extending the same offer so I would retract the complaint. I refused, several times, as his letters became more and more abusive. I just looked on the BBB site and there he is, rated "A+" and the complaint marked "Resolved" Recommendation by the BBB means absolutely nothing. The BBB's purpose seems to be solely to collect annual fees for membership in an organization that will take money from any business and stamp them respectable for no substantive reason. This is outrageous, but no more outrageous than a number of other things going on in business in this country lately.

#31 ::: New York ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2010, 02:00 PM:

I agree that the bbb.org is worse than useless.
After over 4 moths of 'processing' my complaint about Anologique Systems Labs, 27 West 20th Street Suite 406, New York, NY 10011 they closed the complaint first by giving the company an 'F' for not repsonding to their repeated requests for information, then later changing it to a 'A' presumably becuase the company complained, and then switched it to an 'A-' after I complained. But that last 'A-' came with a comment that I did not provide enough information which is just nonesense (heck i even photographed the damage the clowns at Analogique did to my equipment). This reminded me of an event 10 years earlier when a friend that ran a small business received his first BBB complaint. His complaint magically disappeared once he became a registered member of the BBB and wrote them a check. They really are a pro-business group that provides an illusion that they are helping customers. A total scam for the consumer. Thank goodness for the many other web sites that allow consumers to candidly and openly complain about companies which allows consumers to avoid making similar mistakes.

#32 ::: Matt ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2011, 01:02 AM:

The BBB is nothing but useless. They have approached me several times about becoming "accredited" and telling me all about my great reputation. Accredidation involved one thing.. Mailing them a cheque for $450. If I wanted to use the logo on my website, that was another several hundred dollar.

I made a complaint about an "accredited business". A complaint to the BBB netted nothing. Two canned responses, none of which even REMOTELY addressed my concerns, after which the Better Business Bureau closed the complaint, satisfied with the company's "attempt" at a resolution.

Trust me when I say that if you're looking for who is legitimate business and who isn't, do NOT trust the Shoddy Business Bureau as far as you can throw them.

#33 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2011, 07:45 AM:

JamesG:

This is just to say...
welcome to Making Light!

#34 ::: David Harmon sees spam ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2014, 08:10 AM:

Somebody tried to translate an auto? :-)

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