But how can you tell whether the information you’re getting is accurate?
Customer review web sites such as Angie’s List and Yelp! can be very helpful. Same goes for travel sites that offer reviews for would-be vacationers.
But some consumer review sites aren’t just customers sharing their experiences.
We’ve seen companies hire “reviewers” to post false positive comments about their businesses.
That makes the legit reviews come under question.
Other times, reviews are negative. Maybe they should be, or maybe the review writer is just a cranky consumer who is never satisfied or someone who has unrealistic expectations.
The Better Business Bureau (BBB) is often cited as an information resource for consumers who want to check out a company.
But sometimes, parts of BBB reports come into question.
In point, earlier this month, Bamboozled profiled a consumer who had a bad experience with a company that gives extended warranties.
The company had more than 1,200 complaints against it with BBB, yet it had a top “A+” rating.
How could that possibly be?
Other consumers have complained to Bamboozled that BBB didn’t help them.
That, too, has explanations.
Here they come.
WHAT BBB CAN AND CAN’T DO
In 2015, consumers filed more than 870,000 complaints with BBB, and 79 percent of those were settled, said spokeswoman Katherine Hutt. She said that’s the highest settlement rate since BBB started its current recordkeeping system in 2008.
But a settlement doesn’t always mean the customer is happy.
That 79 percent amounted to cases where both parties agreed to the settlement, “or where the business made a good faith effort to resolve the complaint and the consumer either would not accept a reasonable resolution or did not reply to BBB in response to the business’s offer.”
For the other 21 percent, the business did not respond or did not make a good faith effort to resolve the complaint, Hutt said, and these reflect negatively on the business’s rating.
We started with an explanation of what BBB tries to do, and what it can’t do.
“BBB’s mission is advancing trust in the marketplace, and we serve as an impartial third party working with consumers and businesses,” she said. “Thanks to the support of nearly 380,000 BBB Accredited Businesses, our services are available for free to consumers.”
Hutt said those free services include dispute resolution (including mediation and arbitration, if needed), “truth-in-advertising reviews,” investigations into substandard marketplace behavior and fraudulent scams, and consumer education.
Other services include business reviews on more than five million companies in North American on BBB.org, plus tools including BBB Military Line, BBB AUTOLINE (lemon law complaints), BBB Scam Tracker and BBB Wise Giving Alliance (charity reports at Give.org).
BBB is not a government agency and it has no legal authority to fight for consumers. Instead, businesses decide if compliance is best for their bottom lines and reputations.
“BBB cannot force businesses to abide by our guidance but, if they do not, it will be reflected in their BBB rating,” Hutt said.
PAYING FOR BBB APPROVAL?
Critics say businesses are pressured to become a so-called Accredited Business with BBB. That costs money. The business pays a fee to BBB become accredited.
Hutt said the BBB rating is determined in the same manner for all businesses, whether BBB Accredited or not.
She said businesses are invited to apply for accreditation through the local BBB where their business is based.
They must have already obtained a minimum B rating and established a good track record, she said. They also must pledge to uphold the BBB Standards for Trust, to handle complaints promptly, and to run their businesses as defined by the BBB Code of Business Practices. If approved, the business can use the BBB seal.
“The fees for accreditation are set by the local BBBs based on their markets, and support BBB’s nonprofit activities such as education, dispute resolution, and investigation,” Hutt said.
There’s been some controversy over the fees.
In 2013, BBB expelled its greater Los Angeles chapter, BBB of Southland.
It was essentially over a “pay-to-play scandal,” media reports said, showing local businesses that didn’t pay annual dues didn’t get top ratings, even if the business never received complaints.
Most disturbing, a business called Hamas — the same as the terrorist group — paid $425 and received an A- grade, even though the company was a fake created to test the BBB way.
That report asked whether BBB has “built-in conflicts of interest,” and is at the least, not “what many consumers think it is — some quasi-government combination of consumer advocate, watchdog, and complaint bureau.”
COMPLAINTS AND RATINGS
We asked Hutt how businesses can have hundreds or thousands of complaints and still have a top rating. Such a rating might be misleading.
Hutt said ratings represent BBB’s opinion of how a business is likely to interact with its customers, and she called the system “transparent.”
“On every BBB Business Review on BBB.org, you can see the reasons for that company’s specific rating, plus you can link to a detailed explanation of the 100-point rating system,” Hutt said. “We use an algorithm that takes into consideration the size of the company, how promptly they respond to complaints, and numerous other factors that are all explained on our website.”
Hutt said answering complaints isn’t enough to get a high rating. If BBB sees a pattern of complaints, she said, BBB will take it up with the business and ask them to take steps to resolve the underlying issue.
“If they do not, they can lose points on their rating, again depending on the business’s size and volume of consumer transactions,” she said.
That explains why the business we featured with more than 1,200 complaints still had an A+ rating. The company said it has more than 78 million customers, so on a relative basis, the number of complaints is not outrageous.
On businesses that receive low ratings even if they don’t have complaints, Hutt said businesses that don’t provide BBB with information will have an NR for “no rating.”
“However, a business that declines to be transparent – such as refusing to provide information about who runs the business, the nature of products and services offered, or the terms under which they operate – will receive a lower grade,” she said.
She said BBB, as a nonprofit, sets standards for ethical business behavior, celebrates marketplace role models, and calls out and addresses substandard marketplace behavior.
WHERE SHOULD CONSUMERS TURN?
BBB is absolutely a worthwhile consumer resource, but make sure you look deeper to understand why a business has received its grade.
Check with the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs to see if there are complaints. Do that online or by calling (800) 242-5846 (toll-free within New Jersey) or (973) 504-6200.
You can also check public records for information about businesses and individuals. See this story for how.
Also check these resources for other places to complain about certain incidents.
Finally, Google the company or individual. You may see complaints on websites you’ve never heard of before. It’s an essential research tool for Bamboozled, and we highly recommend it.
Have you been Bamboozled? Reach Karin Price Mueller at Bamboozled@NJAdvanceMedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @KPMueller. Find Bamboozled on Facebook. Mueller is also the founder of NJMoneyHelp.com. Stay informed and sign up for NJMoneyHelp.com’s weekly e-newsletter.