Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Impartiality of BBB Complaint Handling

I got a call yesterday from a lady who was contemplating filing a complaint against a business.  When she questioned me about the complaint handling process, she asked me, "How do I know you'll be impartial?"  Because we are funded by our Accredited Businesses, she wanted to make sure we wouldn't unjustly side with an Accredited Business over a consumer.  I've been asked this question three times in the last two years.  Apparently, it is asked commonly enough to be listed in our FAQ.  The answer is brief and accurate, but I think it needs more explanation to satisfactorily answer the more skeptical individuals.  The answer listed in our FAQ states:

"BBB's value to the business community is based on our marketplace neutrality.  Our purpose is not to act as an advocate for businesses or consumers but to act as a mutually trusted intermediary to resolve disputes and provide information to assist consumers in making wise buying decisions.  Businesses have supported BBB for more than 90 years because a trustworthy marketplace is in everyone's best interest."

Despite this explanation, I get plenty of comments from customers who claim that we "always" take the company's side and just as many comments from companies claiming we "always" take the customer's side.  Obviously, just by getting one comment from each side disproves both. And while I could endlessly cite supporting evidence of our impartiality, it would do nothing to give people a clear understanding of why we are impartial. I find that people are more likely to trust others if they understand and accept their motives.

First of all, and most importantly, consumers must trust that we are impartial for them to use our services.  Of course consumers are not going to use a resource they do not trust and if they did not value our resources, if consumers did not trust our reliability reports and did not use us, we would have zero impact on how companies operate.  Why would businesses listen to anyone who consumers do not value?  It is essential for us to maintain the trust of consumers.  We must do everything in our power not to jeopardize that trust.  It is much easier to be trustworthy than to maintain a trustworthy facade.

But, we must also maintain the trust of the business community.  We cannot expect businesses to become accredited if they feel they are held to unrealistic and unfair standards. If companies feel that no matter what they do, they will have unsatisfactory reports, they will never become BBB accredited.  Companies will get complaints. That's the nature of business.  How a company handles those complaints has the greatest impact on its reliability report. We expect companies to respond to complaints in a professional manner, provide appropriate supporting information and documents if necessary, and show willingness to address the issues within the complaints filed by their customers.  We believe most companies and consumers would agree that those are reasonable expectations.  If a company believes it is well within its rights to stonewall a customer, blow off the BBB or provide a wholly insufficient response, they would be right, but it would guarantee themselves an unsatisfactory record for all the world to see.

Most complaints are amicably resolved to the satisfaction of both parties.  Complaints typically result from miscommunication, oversight or confusion and are easily remedied. On the occasions that resolution is not reached, one party will probably be left dissatisfied.  There are two sides to every argument. Whenever it's not a simple miscommunication, one side is wrong.

Monday, August 30, 2010

American Shingle Collapses

We never approved of the way American Shingle's door-to-door salesmen operated.  We've had complaints and heard horror stories about inappropriate behavior, escalating altercations, misleading sales claims, and on several occasions taking advantage of the elderly.  The company asked their customers to file claims with their insurance carrier and allow them to negotiate with the insurance company.  It is an unnecessary, abnormal and dangerous sales tactic.  For a long time, American Shingle addressed their complaints filed with the Better Business Bureau and maintained a satisfactory record. Despite their repeated attempts, however, we would not allow them to become BBB accredited. Their sales tactics were too problematic. Once American Shingle's bad habits started to wear off on our local businesses, we issued an alert, warning against these sales practices.

American Shingle President Carlton DeWayne Dunko opened with an aggressive plan to simultaneously establish his business in several states. To extend a company's resources across several states in this way is dangerous unless handled by an accomplished businessperson.  Perhaps Dunko had seen the success of BBB Accredited Aspen Contracting, a company that burst onto the scene in 2006 and now operates in 37 states.  It has continued to grow, regularly announcing the opening of new locations.  Aspen had the right idea when they opened many physical locations and established a local presence with sixteen offices across the nation (probably more by now).

 Instead of allowing the company to grow naturally, American Shingle outgrew its revenue and relied on overly-aggressive sales tactics to assure roofing jobs. It did not work.  American Shingle began paying for old roofing jobs with the payments from the new ones.

We received calls and inquiries, dozens by the day, about American Shingle.  Being naturally curious because of my position, I began asking questions about the company, their sales tactics and their work.   I continued to do this and by May, I could tell that not all was well with American Shingle.  By June, I was convinced that American Shingle was sinking and I began contacting consumer protection agencies, just to get a feel for the atmosphere.  I was somewhat surprised to find that most agencies I spoke with only had a passing knowledge of the company.  By the end of July, it seemed that everyone knew about them.  Linda Wagar from Fox 4 began her investigation of the company, as well as news organizations in Tennessee and Georgia.  The Kansas Attorney General's office, an incredibly tight-lipped group, even said "We're aware of them" (That's as good as you can get from them.  They're like the Russian guys in crime movies that don't say much but get their point across with presence).

Tennessee was the first state to feel the financial squeeze that American Shingle had gotten itself into and issued a warning  against them.  They just stopped putting on roofs.  In the Kansas City area, the company postponed telling their customers by reestablishing a date to install roofs.  The installation, of course, will never come because American Shingle was evicted from their Lenexa location before any work began on area roofs.  According to Fox 4, some 400 Kansas City area homeowners have paid to have their roofs replaced and received nothing.

In one of the most self-delusional or disingenuous comments I have ever heard, Dunko actually said,"It wasn't the hard-earned paycheck that I took, it was the check that their insurance company provided." I'm not sure if he realizes who pays the insurance policy, or that once an insurance company shells out money for a roof, they won't do it again, but Dunko's comments are either a desperate attempt to salvage an irreparably tarnished reputation or just...well, stupid.  He's facing several investigations for American Shingle as well as other companies, so he must have some grasp of how unfair his business practices were.  Everyone from the Secret Service and state Attorneys General right on down to county Sheriffs are investigating American Shingle for financial misdeeds. He could easily face jail time for his actions.

Right now, our local consumer protection agencies are taking complaints on the company so that they can better determine what action to take.  If you have dealt with American Shingle and wish to file a complaint, you can contact the Kansas Attorney General's office: (785) 368-8447, Missouri (573) 751-3321 or if you live in Johnson County, Kansas you can contact the ever-vigilant Johnson County Prosecutor's Office (913) 715-3000.

CLICK HERE for Linda Wagar's story about American Shingle on Fox 4

Nonprofit Resource - The Foundation Center

This is a bit of a follow-up to my previous post about grants. Do you work with a nonprofit searching for grants? The Foundation Center, an organization committed to connecting nonprofits and grantmakers, can be an excellent resource for you.

Locally, you can access the Foundation Center's resources at the Kansas City Public Library.
Happy grantwriting!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Farrah's Car Sale Scam on "Teen Mom"

My girlfriend is a big fan of the show "Teen Mom."  Because of that, I'll sit in front of the TV with her while I write, and she keeps me updated on the lives of these 18 year old parents.  It is an occasionally interesting show, to see how these kids cope with parenthood.  When the show amplifies the drama, my attention wanes and I only periodically glance at the TV.  The latest episode caught my attention.

Last week, my girlfriend told me that Farrah, one of the moms, was scammed while selling her car.  I'd heard of many scams against people who are buying a car, but never selling.  I sat down and watched the show.  I came in as Farrah listed her car on Craigslist. My girlfriend is a notorious channel-changer, so I'm not sure what I missed, but the next thing I knew, Farrah was on the phone with her bank and her account was -$2600.  As soon as I heard that, I knew what had happened.  I speak with people on the phone who've encountered similar scams.  And sometimes, I have to tell them that they've lost their savings.

I'm sure it went down something like this.  Farrah listed her car for $5000, seemingly unaware that her car was not worth it, and she quickly got an offer.  I assume the offer was from outside the country, probably Canada.  They seem to have told her that $5000 was no problem and they would send her a check for the car and the shipping costs to send it to Canada. They probably said that the taxes and getting the car through customs was expensive and the fees could only be paid by the seller.  The scammer likely told Farrah to send the money to a "handler" of some sort. Whether the handler claimed to be an IRS agent or customs agent doesn't matter; it was actually the scam artist or an accomplice.  This is a variant of more common wire transfer scams.

Around the internet, people have been a little too hard on Farrah for her mistake.  Scammers find people that have some trust in others and then manipulate it.  Scam artists are convincing and charming, believable and adaptive.  The good ones can role with most situations and maintain their trustworthy facade.  Anyone and everyone can be persuaded, especially an isolated and emotionally distraught teenager.  In a recent US Weekly interview, Farrah said that she felt stupid for what she did.  And while it is now recognizable as a bad decision, it's more difficult to see at the time. It happens to many others.

I ran across a commenter or two on different websites discussing the scam and they were shocked to find out this happened to people who were not senior citizens.  Some people believe that to be ripped off, one must have mental problems such as senility.  This is NOT the case.  Most victims of scams have full mental capacity. The reason that the elderly are targeted more often is because they are isolated.  They have sometimes outlived all their friends or spouses that used to give them advice.  They might be in financial straits because they live only on a meager social security check.  Financial burdens lead people to make desperate decisions.

To con artists, Farrah is an appealing victim, though she didn't know it when they stole her money.  She lost her child's father in a car accident.  She was forced to rid herself of her parents, who were abusive and at times incapable of rational thought.  She found herself living on her own for the first time, without her parents' guidance, without a partner to advise her, in financial desperation and perpetually distracted by the needs of her daughter.  Single mothers are as desirable targets as the elderly, but they're more assailable.  Single mothers use email, Craigslist, Careerbuilder, cell phones and other technologies, giving scammers more opportunities to contact them.  Farrah is the type of person I most often have to tell that they lost their money.  It's horrible, but it happens.  It doesn't mean that the victim should feel ashamed.

If you or anyone you know gets caught in a similar scam, you should immediately contact the Federal Trade Commission (1-877-FTC-HELP) and the police department of whatever state or province the money was wired to.  If the money was wired to Canada, contact Phonebusters (1-888-495-8501) and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Fraud Division (613-993-6884).  It is difficult to track these scam artists down, but the quicker you act, the better your chances.

Monday, August 23, 2010

4 out of 10 Professionals Want to Quit

That number does not, by the way, include me. O.k, Dave?

With that out of the way, check this article from the Kansas City Business Journal. Apparently, people get back from vacation and realize that being overworked and underpaid is a bad deal. I recently heard about some companies making a move to offer their employees unlimited paid vacation. Now I doubt those employees are looking for jobs elsewhere.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Donate Like a Billionaire

From our friends at the BBB Wise Giving Alliance comes five ways to donate like a billionaire. Click here to read the full article. Here's one tip: Billionaires don't give to charities just because they like their names.

For more information on giving to local charities, click here.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Air Duct Cleaning Advertisements

The Kansas City Better Business Bureau began looking into the advertising practices of local air duct cleaning companies.  Around the same time, the BBB of Sacramento finished an in-depth year long investigation of the same industry.  We began researching complaints against air duct cleaning companies that advertised inexpensive cleanings, offering specials for as little as $39.95.  In the Kansas City Area, one can expect to pay a few hundred dollars, but no where near as low $40 to $80.

Ward Holman, owner/operator of Air Vision Duct Cleaning of KC, an A+ rated BBB Accredited Business and three-time Angie's List Super Service Award winner, has heard so many stories about these companies that his website states: "I'll tell you why there's no such thing as a $59 duct cleaning--even on a small home!"  We called Holman and asked why there is no such thing and, in the end, it's pretty simple.

"Because they can't make any money," Holman says. "They stay in business because the coupon looks pretty good. Eighteen vents for this price and the homeowner only has nineteen vents. It can't be that much more...A guy starts touring the house, does a quick inspection and they always find mold."  Mold is uncommon, but not unheard of, in air ducts.  "They seem to find it on every job," Holman says. "They start adding up prices and suddenly it costs $575.  The homeowner says something about the cost and the guy says he'll call his boss...he tells the homeowner that the 'boss' says he'll do it for $475.  I'm not saying a house can't get big enough to cost $500, but not every job."

If an Air Duct cleaning company finds mold and increases the price by a few hundred percent, get skeptical.  If you are concerned about mold, you can contact a laboratory to do a proper test for mold.  On site air duct cleaners are not equipped to determine if your ducts are actually infested with mold. Their equipment can only tell, at best, if mold spores are in the air.  Mold spores are virtually always in the air, which makes the test irrelevant.

The best way to combat bait and switch advertising is to check up on any company you might do business with.  For a list of BBB Accredited Air Duct Cleaners, click HERE.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Accredited Charity Spotlight - Children International

From time to time, I like to write about one of the fantastic BBB accredited charities here in Kansas City.

Today, I'd like to put your attention on Children International, a nationally soliciting organization headquartered here in Kansas City.
Through their sponsorship program, Children International assists more than 335,000 children in 12 countries. They help children overcome the barriers of poverty by providing assitance in the following areas: annual health exams, access to medical care, nutrition education and counselling, school supplies and fees, clothing, and household items.
For more information on the BBB's charity accrediation program, visit our website or email me at charityreview@kansascity.bbb.org.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Return Policies - Read the Fine Print

This is on our blog feed from our friends at the Council of Better Business Bureaus - to the right of our posts - but I think it's important enough to make it a thrilling post of my own.

We all shop. We have to. It's not my favorite hobby, but because I don't happen to have a grocery store, clothing boutique, and toy store in my living room, even I am compelled to browse a retail establishment at least once a week. Usually on Saturdays. Unless I run out of ranch dressing on a Wednesday. Then I have to venture out in the middle of the week because the world might just possibly end if there is no ranch dressing in my house. But I digress.
Occasionally, we all buy something that just doesn't work out once we get it home. I might discover that the brand of ranch dressing I bought has an ingredient in it that would turn my 3-year-old purple. Or you realize that the dress that looked great in the store is, in fact, hideous in natural light. Whatever the reason, we often have to take things back.

A lot of people assume that there are laws regulating store return policies. But that is not the case. It is up to the individual businesses to establish, and post, their own return policies. And it is up to us as consumers to read the fine print. If I bought that ranch dressing on an end-cap clearance section for 15 cents, there may very well have been signage on that shelf along the lines of "These items may not be returned. All sales final." Or, if you ripped the tags off that dress before you realized how ugly it is, you may just have to donate it to Goodwill and pray someone out there has the right coloring for that gown. As consumers, we have to be smart about what we buy.

So read that fine print.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

What is a Grant?

Here's a bit of "Nonprofits 101." Grants.

If you are involved in the nonprofit sector, even marginally, you may have heard the term 'grant' being thrown about. 'Grant' implies money. But what is a grant? Do grants appear like magic at the feet of the nonprofit organizations most worthy of them? If only that were the case.

A grant is funding provided by a government agency, corporation, or foundation to (usually) a nonprofit organization for a specific project. For example, a food bank may receive a grant from a foundation specifically to fund a program that serves homeless families. But the grant won't fund all the food bank's operations. Only that specific program.

To get a grant, organizations need to apply to for them. What is commonly known as grant writing requires organizations to demonstrate how they will use the funds and explain what outcomes are expected with the funding (i.e., 500 homeless people will be receive 8lbs of food weekly for 6 months). Grant writing is an art. Grants are often competitive and good grant writing skills are in high demand in the nonprofit sector.

If you are looking for a grantt for your nonprofit organization, here are a few sources:

Federal Government Grants

Foundation Center

As an example of how grants are working in Kansas City, the Environmental Protection Agency recently announced that Kansas City metro organizations will receive more than $1 million for programs that cut diesel emissions. Read more about that here.

For fun, check out this retro music video by recording artist Amy Grant.