BBBIt’s common to see stickers and placards in business windows and buttons displayed proudly on website home pages proclaiming a company’s rating with the Better Business Bureau (BBB). While many people utilize this organization to research companies or services they’d like to use, or lodge a complaint when something has gone wrong, few understand exactly what the BBB is or what it does. And possibly fewer know about the allegations that have been levied against the well-known consumer organization, accusations of scamming and shady business practices that cast its reputation as the end-all, be-all of unbiased information about the legitimacy of a business in a concerning light. Can you trust the BBB?

What exactly is the BBB and what does do?

Contrary to the belief of some, the Better Business Bureau is not a government-run organization. It is a nonprofit organization that was started in 1912 which was created to try and help collect and provide reviews of businesses from customers, as well as mediate disputes between the two. It also offers businesses the opportunity to become officially accredited by the BBB, allowing those that are in good standing to display it proudly on their websites and in their storefronts. However, accredited businesses must pay dues to the BBB in order to establish and retain their status.

There are 113 independent local BBB organizations across the U.S., Mexico and Canada, all of which are coordinated by the Council of Better Business Bureaus (CBBB). Since each local BBB operates independently from the others, it can get a little tricky when someone refers to “the BBB,” since business ratings and accreditations are handled differently from location to location. This can also create some confusion, since a large corporation such as McDonald’s, for example, might have an overall rating wherever its headquarters are located, but no ratings for numerous individual McDonald’s restaurant locations across the country.

Consumers should be aware of complaints against the organization

Although the BBB has an overall positive image with many people, others have called it out over the years for multiple infractions. These complaints range from extortion of businesses that wish to maintain their positive rating to misleading consumers by providing positive ratings and accreditations for businesses that are downright predatory. In some cases, the complaints are focused on a specific local BBB, such as the Southland BBB which was expelled by the CBBB in 2013 due to its habit of giving businesses that did not pay dues lower grades than those which did.

So, can I trust the BBB?

What all consumers need to realize and remember is that are very few organizations or publications that are 100% unbiased. The BBB is a good resource to use when researching a business, and it can certainly be helpful in getting a complaint you have with a business the attention it needs, but ultimately the Better Business Bureau does not exist only to serve consumers. It makes its money from the dues its accredited businesses pay, and therefore an air of suspicion should be maintained when using the BBB’s website to research a local or national company. Here is some advice when utilizing this resource:

  1. When you use the BBB to look up a business, you should pay attention to the content of consumer complaints against the company, as well as the number of complaints filed. This can clue you in to the type of problems customers have, and you can also often read the business’ response to the complaints, which will give you a feel for how it handles customer complaints.
  2. Carefully consider the reasoning for a company’s BBB rating. Typically, an explanation will be provided for why the rating was received, ranging anywhere from the BBB not having sufficient information about a business to the volume of complaints received. Consider whether or not the reasoning given for a rating seems legitimate to you before making a decision on whether to use a business.
  3. Don’t use it as your primary source of information. While the BBB is one of the few organizations of its kind, there are other review sites out there, from Yelp to Angie’s List, that you can also use as a source. You can do research on a company beyond the BBB, paying attention to consumer-specific sites as well as a business’ social media pages, which often reflect overall consumer opinion. Just be careful when researching to be on the lookout for fake reviews and review pages, a tactic used by some scammers to convince people their business is legitimate when it isn’t.

Why does NextAdvisor use it?

Despite its negatives, the fact of the matter is, there isn’t a better resource for evaluating the trustworthiness and reputation of all kinds of businesses and online services than the BBB. While plenty of other review sites exist, many of them are either not free for the public to peruse or limited to certain types of businesses rather than extending to a large majority. Additionally, these other review sites aren’t without their own issues — in 2014, a court ruled that Yelp is entitled to manipulate its reviews, and although the service denied doing so, the numerous allegations and the fact that it is legally allowed made many users suspicious.

NextAdvisor.com uses the BBB to help evaluate the reliability of a business, following our own advice by looking at the reasoning behind the rating as well as reading through customer complaints and any other information pertaining to the business. We don’t view the BBB’s rating as the end-all, be-all authority on whether a business is trustworthy or not, but it does help when looking at services in industries rife with corruption and consumer abuse, like payday lenders and credit monitoring services.

When it comes down to it, using your best judgement and common sense is just as important when dealing with an organization like the BBB as anything else. It can be tricky as a consumer to know just who to trust, so knowing what an organization does and knowing the facts behind any complaints about it will help you make the most informed decisions you possibly can. To stay up to date on the latest scams lurking around and how to beat them, follow our blog on the topic.