I grew up believing in our country’s institutions, and one of those was the Better Business Bureau.

Even as a young child, I remember Saturday trips to the hardware store with my father. We’d walk in and I’d watch and listen as my dad discussed something that sounded so technical, so important. The man behind the counter looked serious as his listened to what my father was attempting to fix, and then the two of them would go walking down an aisle to find that perfect part or tool that would make our lives that much better.

And I remember, always behind the counter, mounted on the wall, like a plaque of distinction, were the initials that signified this business as being a member of the Better Business Bureau… BBB.

I remember asking my father what BBB, the Better Business Bureau was all about. I remember him telling me that the Better Business Bureau was the place you could call if you had a problem with a business that had treated you unfairly. They would help right what was wrong. They were your protectors. Businesses had to treat people fairly or face the long and powerful arm of the Better Business Bureau. They made sure that life was fair. I grew up believing that the Better Business Bureau was the Business Police.

Of course, when we’re young, everything seems more powerful, more imposing, and as I grew-up and went into business for myself, I instinctively knew that the Better Business Bureau couldn’t possibly be the all-powerful institution that I imagined in my youth. But, I still had respect for the organization as being one that protected consumers from businesses that would harm them, or treat them unfairly.

I certainly never believed that the Better Business Bureau was just a franchise operation that went around selling the use of its widely recognized initials to businesses who paid whatever they asked for fear that the BBB would say bad things about them, or give them a negative rating. I certainly never believed that the BBB operated very much like a protection racket. Pay your dues or else? That’s not the BBB I grew-up with and I was shocked to learn the truth.

As it turns out, the Better Business Bureau is nothing more than a marketing gimmick that basically scares businesses into paying annual dues in order to be given an ‘A’ rating. Pay, get an ‘A’… choose not to pay, and you’ll be rated something less, regardless of whether the BBB has received any complaints about your business or not.

Of course, the Better Business Bureau also seems like a relic of days gone by. I can’t remember the last time I noticed the BBB plaque prominently displayed in a business. I’d never called them, and I never bothered to check with them before I did business with a company. Nowadays, with the power of the Internet at my fingertips, I “Google” a company to learn more about them, visit their Website, or read a review on one of the many Websites that offer information about products and services offered by companies around the globe.

But, while printed newspapers are struggling to survive and producing online versions, and the Yellow Pages doing the same, the Better Business Bureau has survived and perhaps even become that much stronger as a result of the World Wide Web. We may not think about it as much, but since we no longer have to call them to inquire about a company, it’s much easier to find out if a company we’re considering has the all-powerful rating… ‘A’… or something less.

We’re human beings in the U.S.A. and it’s been drilled into our mind throughout our developing years that receiving an ‘A’ is doing things right… getting a ‘B’ means something less. A ‘C’, we’ve been told is “average,” but we know the truth about a ‘C’… a ‘D’ is flat out unacceptable… and an ‘E’ or ‘F’ unthinkable.

Those letters, of course, refer to grades we receive in school, but we learn that they are the keys to our future. We grow up understanding that they will dictate how our parents will view us, where we will be allowed to go to college, and ultimately what we will do for the rest of our lives. So, when we see or hear that a company has a ‘C’ rating from the Better Business Bureau, we recoil in disgust… something’s wrong with that company… that’s a company to be avoided. We certainly don’t assume that the company with a ‘C’ rating from the BBB is simply one that chose not to pay the organization’s annual dues.

But that’s the truth of the matter. The companies with ‘A’ ratings are those that pay the BBB, the ‘C’ rated companies don’t. Lowe’s near my house has a ‘C’. Wal-Mart, which is just a few miles from Lowe’s, has an ‘A’. Guess which one is a member of the Better Business Bureau. That’s right… Wal-Mart.

The Better Business Bureau says that it has received 14 complaints against Lowe’s, but only one against Wal-Mart. But being a private company – and only a franchise of the national BBB organization at that – they don’t disclose any details, nor are they required to. And it’s pretty hard to believe, when you consider that there are over a million people living within 20 miles of my town, that Wal-Mart has only one complaint, while Lowe’s has fourteen. Maybe the BBB is the one that lodges the complaints… who knows.

Southwest Airlines… an ‘A’ rating. American Airlines… a ‘C’ rating. But American Airlines has roughly ten times the number of flights from my local airport than Southwest. Still, come to find out that Southwest is a member of the BBB, and American Airlines chooses not to pay what the BBB demands.

What kind of world do we live in when you can’t trust an organization like the Better Business Bureau? Talk about sad. What’s next? Will I find out that the Red Cross sells blood to the highest bidder? That the Salvation Army forces homeless people to work in sweatshops? I sure hope not. I’m not sure I could stand it. I think we need to believe in something, especially these days. I’m sure having a hard time trusting my bank, and I stopped trusting politicians before I graduated from high school.

I grew up believing that business is the backbone of America… that if I built a better mousetrap, the world would beat a path to my door. That things in this country would, for the most part be fair.

It’s sad to find out that it’s not always the case, but I suppose that’s part of growing up. That’s what they mean when they say “live and learn”.

So, I’ve learned that the Better Business Bureau isn’t what I thought it was. Oh well. I guess that’s just one more institution that’s out to make a buck… so what? Well, the “so what?” is that I’m in business today, and it’s hard enough to make it these days… there’s plenty of people shooting at you out there. We really don’t need an organization calling itself the Better Business Bureau trading on our memories, deceiving us into believing that they exist for our own good, when the truth is that they exist only for themselves.

I recently looked at the BBB Website because I saw that a law firm owned by someone I knew had received an ‘F’ rating. I called my friend and asked him if he knew. He did and was very upset about the whole thing. He explained that his firm was helping people negotiate with their mortgage companies to avoid foreclosure and that when he contacted the BBB they refused to even listen to what he had to say.

Being a writer, I decided to call them myself… check the whole thing out. Want to know what they told me? The woman on the phone said that her BBB franchise was simply giving all law firms involved in foreclosure avoidance services, such as loan modifications, an ‘F’ even if there were no complaints on file against them. I told her that sounded terribly unfair, and I asked if my friend’s firm could submit their case as to why they should receive a higher rating. She said he was welcome to do that.

But, then she said the sentence I won’t soon forget. She said: “They can submit whatever they want, but it’s not going to change a thing.”

I hung up the phone and thought to myself… “Wow. Someone should really report her to the Better Business Bureau.”

Martin Andelman is a freelance writer and journalist. He lives in Fullerton, California with his wife and daughter. And he shops at Lowe’s and flies on American Airlines, no matter what the BBB says.

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