What Is a Better Business Bureau, and How Do You File a Complaint?

FT Contributor
A smartphone has a screen that shows BBB, the Better Business Bureau logo.
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Better Business Bureaus (BBBs) were created to protect consumers from unethical product advertising and unsavory business practices. These organizations create transparency when it comes to products, and they bring dishonest companies to light.

For example, Listerine came to market in 1914 and started engaging in false advertising practices in 1921. After several false advertising lawsuits, the Federal Trade Commission ordered the company to spend $10 billion in corrective advertising.

In 2005, the company launched another false campaign claiming the product was as “effective as floss” through rigged clinical trials, and another lawsuit was filed. The BBB provided consumers with unbiased information on the company’s false advertising claims.

What Is the Better Business Bureau?

The first BBBs were established in the early 1900s as a response to advertising abuse. The BBB attempted to hold companies accountable for their business practices. These organizations expanded as marketplaces got bigger and ethical advertising continued to be a problem for consumers. Now 5.4 million businesses have profiles with the BBB and that number continues to grow.

Better Business Bureaus are “ethical marketplaces” that gather accurate information about companies and products from trustworthy sources and deliver it to consumers. These organizations don’t provide opinions or reviews of these products but offer unbiased information. This allows consumers to decide for themselves which companies they want to do business with and which products they feel they can trust.

Better Business Bureau Definition

The BBB sets standards and accredits businesses that meet these standards. BBB Accredited Businesses are those that “meet tough accreditation standards, agree to follow the highest principles of business ethics and voluntary self-regulation, and have accepted an invitation from us [the BBB] to join.” There are 160 BBB offices in North America and 100 independent Better Business Bureau organizations.

A Brief History of BBBs

  • Early 1900s: “Vigilante Committees” or Advertising Clubs were established.
  • 1911: Samuel C. Dobbs, sales manager of Coca-Cola company, created the “Ten Commandments of Advertising,” later adapted by the organization.
  • 1921: Committee names were changed to Better Business Bureaus and the organization was incorporated.
  • 1928: The first international bureau was founded in Canada.
  • 1970: The Council of BBBs was established to consolidate the National BBB and the Association of BBBs International.
  • Today: Over 100 bureaus work to provide unbiased information on companies and products in North America.

What Does a Better Business Bureau Do?

Better Business Bureaus are non-profit organizations that set high standards to rank businesses and other non-profit organizations as “Accredited Businesses.” To become accredited, a business must prove it:

  • Focuses on building consumer trust.
  • Uses ethical advertising standards.
  • Tells the truth.
  • Remains transparent.
  • Honors promises.
  • Shows responsiveness.
  • Safeguards privacy.
  • Displays integrity.

In addition to setting these standards, your local BBB also stores important data about businesses while helping to resolve disputes between companies and consumers. The organization reviews advertising to ensure it meets ethical standards, per guidelines set by the Council of the Better Business Bureau.

BBBs coach businesses on strategies for implementing ethical behavior so businesses can develop trusting and strong relationships with their customers. BBBs also assist with consumer complaints and attempt to resolve these disputes with mediation or arbitration.

Accessing Local BBB Services

You can file a complaint, leave a review, or get more information on a company through your local BBB organization. Your local BBB is also helpful for identifying scams or unethical companies to avoid. For example, you could find out more information on identifying elderly scams in your area through your local BBB. By learning more about how these scammers are targeting elderly citizens, it’s easier to recognize when you’ve been contacted by a scammer so you can report it. You can also look up companies through your local BBB to find out more about their practices.

How to Look Up a Company on BBB

Before doing business with a company or purchasing a product, you can find out more about it through your local BBB. Look up the company by following these steps:

  • Navigate to the Better Business Bureau search tool on your web browser.
  • Use the map or type in your zip code to locate your nearest BBB organization.
  • Click on “More About Your Local BBB” to obtain contact information for your local office.
  • Locate the search tool at the top of the page.
  • Type in the company name or business category and confirm your location.
  • Click “Search.”
  • View the company profile.

From the company profile page, you can learn:

  • Whether or not the business is accredited.
  • How many years the company has been in business.
  • The company’s BBB rating.
  • More about the customer reviews, if any appear.
  • More about the customer complaints, if any appear.

If you’ve done business with the company, you can also file your own review or complaint from the company profile page.

How to File a Complaint With the BBB

When you follow the steps above, you can locate the business you wish to file a complaint against. Once you’ve located the company, to file a complaint, you must:

  • Click “File a Complaint” from the company profile page.
  • Read the BBB disclaimer about filing a complaint.
  • Click “Continue” if you agree.
  • Answer the questions about the nature of your complaint.
  • Provide details on your complaint.
  • Click “Submit” to file your complaint with the BBB.

After you’ve filed your complaint, the BBB will contact the company and give it 30 days to respond to your claim. If the company doesn’t respond or the response it provides is invalid, the business’s grade may be lowered on the company’s BBB profile. This warns other consumers that the company may not follow ethical business practices. In addition to filing a complaint with the BBB, there are other consumer complaint actions you can take, such as contacting the company directly or getting help from a consumer attorney.

The Better Business Bureau offers helpful resources to help you learn how a company does business. You can file complaints and reviews or find out more about companies in your area through your local BBB. By using these important resources, you’ll feel more confident in the decisions you make on products and companies.

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