When it comes to local BBB, region better watch the watchdog

| Thursday, Feb. 1, 2007

Checking the reputation of a roofer or car dealer• Many consumers think first about contacting the local Better Business Bureau.

The Pittsburgh region's branch of the national organization -- the Downtown-based Better Business Bureau of Western Pennsylvania Inc. -- keeps 28,000 reports on businesses in 28 counties. President Warren T. King Jr. considers the bureau to be the first line of defense for consumers or "where the ethical rubber meets the road."

That road to customer satisfaction is becoming more crowded these days, though, with dozens of ways to research a company's track record and none of them complete or foolproof.

Critics of the Better Business Bureau point out that it's sustained by member businesses. Government watchdog agencies, meanwhile, tackle select complaints against companies, and Internet-based information services and blogs may not be reliable.

"The very worst will stick out with the BBB, if you're looking at three to four companies and one happens to have more complaints," said Stephen Pociask, president of the American Consumer Institute based in Reston, Va.

"Sometimes there is an issue of, where are they getting their money• And is there a linkage between the dues and the standing of the companies?" he said.

Bottom line, the bureau is a useful resource with a "pretty complete" online database that works to resolve complaints and disclose the results, Pociask said.

But finding a business that can be trusted should involve checking church bulletins, neighbors' anecdotes and Yellow Pages ads, as well as taking time to collect multiple prices, he said.

Members in the Better Business Bureau must agree to 13 conditions including answering and working to resolve within 25 days complaints the bureau forwards, and taking part in binding or non-binding resolution processes for disputes that aren't worked out simply.

The bureau's arbitration procedure turned into a headache for Roger Newman, executive vice president of Stahl Plumbing Heating & Air Conditioning Inc. of Swissvale.

Stahl lost its membership in the bureau in December over two complaints that weren't resolved through the organization, he said. In one case that went into non-binding conciliation, Newman disagreed with a decision that Stahl should refund $2,600 to a customer who was unhappy with a new ceramic bathroom floor and complained again after Stahl replaced it.

The plumbing firm had charged half-price for the $5,200 job, Newman said, and considered this fair. The customer collected homeowners' insurance to replace the floor a second time, he said.

In the other case, Stahl settled a customer's complaint about a $250 fee to open a sewer through the state attorney general's office and not the bureau, which had been notified, Newman said.

"I didn't respond to the BBB on this," Newman said. He had been a member for about six years, paying $500 annually in dues. The bureau's board of directors revoked Stahl's membership in December after considering evidence that the BBB's King presented.

The company can reapply after a year, but Newman finds fault with the bureau's procedures. "You don't have to be a good company. You have to be a company that sends them letters back," he said.

The bureau said Stahl had 11 complaints over five years, Newman said, and he views that as "a pretty good record" considering the company answers about 75 service calls a day.

The bureau revoked three other memberships at the same time and has taken similar actions at other times. King said the local bureau publicly has released news of membership revocations since he arrived in Pittsburgh in June 2005 from a bureau in upstate New York.

The Western Pennsylvania bureau has almost 2,900 members, up dramatically from 1,700 in 2004.

King attributes the growth to the accessibility of the bureau's reports on the Internet -- giving the organization more exposure -- and to the success of an in-house sales program run by the Detroit-based J.P. Marketing firm that serves about 30 bureau offices nationwide.

Five to eight of the 20 employees in the office are working in sales at any time, contacting businesses about becoming members or renewing their memberships, with dues ranging from $350 to several thousand dollars a year depending on the company's size, he said.

Angie's List and other consumer clubs like it, in contrast, sign members to file and exchange graded reports about local and national companies.

"I see our service as a complement to theirs," founder Angie Hicks said of the Better Business Bureau. "We encourage people to check both before they hire, and rule out who not to use.

"As far as who is really good, that is where we differentiate."

Hicks founded the list in 1995 in Columbus, Ohio. An Angie's List chapter for the Pittsburgh area opened two years ago and has 8,200 members who have rated almost 5,000 service companies. Members are asked on each report to confirm that they have no link, or don't compete against the business.

Hicks encourages consumers to check with state attorneys general, the Federal Trade Commission and other government agencies, depending on the business, before committing to an expensive contract.

In Pennsylvania, the attorney general's office took about 43,000 formal complaints from consumers last year, a number that has been growing as the public becomes more tuned in to its rights, and as it becomes easier to file complaints online, spokesman Nils Frederiksen said.

Better Business Bureau calls

These industries got the most advance purchase inquiries in 2006:

1. Invention or product development, marketing 2. General contractors 3. Mortgages 4. Modeling and talent agencies 5. Windows

These industries generated the most complaints to the local BBB last year:

1. Auto dealers, new vehicles 2. General contractors 3. Auto dealers, used vehicles 4. Furniture retailers 5. Banks

Source: Better Business Bureau of Western Pennsylvania Inc.

Reputation research

Here are some resources for consumers trying to find reputable contractors, retailers or other businesses:

• Better Business Bureau of Western Pennsylvania: Free reports on 28,000 member and non-member companies available online at www.westernpennsylvaniabbb.org , or 24 hours by phone at 412-456-2700.

• Angie's List: Members write, share reviews of businesses at a cost of $47 a year. Contact pittsburgh@angieslist.com or 412-322-2474.

• Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office: Check whether action has been filed against a firm at www.attorneygeneral.gov , use the search box, or call consumer protection hot line at 800-441-2555.

• Pennsylvania Department of State: Check whether a business has a license or is registered to do business in the state, or whether a charity if registered, at www.dos.state.pa.us

• Federal Trade Commission: www.ftc.gov

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