Better Business Bureaus (BBBs) make all of their reports available online. The easiest way to research the reputation of a local business is to visit the Web site of your local BBB. You can find that information by first going to BBB.org and entering your zip code. Once you reach your local BBB Web site, you can choose to research all businesses in your area or limit your search only to BBB-accredited businesses.
There are several different ways to conduct your online research. You can search both accredited and nonaccredited businesses by name, phone number or Web site URL. There's also an option to search by type of business, limiting your results to businesses within a five- to 100-mile radius of your zip code. On most BBB websites, there's an option to limit search results to charities or to BBB-accredited businesses only.
By default, all local BBB searches include headquarters listings for national businesses and charities represented in your area. So if you search for Wal-Mart Stores Inc. in the Western Pennsylvania BBB search engine, you'll get a listing for the Arkansas headquarters of the superstore chain. And if you search for the American Red Cross, you'll get the charity's headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Once you find the business or charity you're looking for, you'll be presented with either a reliability report or a Wise Giving guide.
Reliability reports are for all businesses, whether they're BBB accredited, nonaccredited, for-profit, nonprofit, online or offline. A reliability report contains the following information:
- The status and length of the business's BBB accreditation
- A BBB rating (not all BBBs have the same rating system or criteria)
- Contact information and business profile
- Brief information about products and services
- Licensing information, if applicable
- Customer complaint history, including the total number of complaints, complaints broken down by type, and how many have been resolved
- Any government action against the company
- Any advertising reviews initiated by the BBB
As we mentioned above, not all local Better Business Bureaus use the same rating system or rating criteria. The most common systems classify a business as satisfactory, unsatisfactory or "no rating." A satisfactory rating means that all consumer complaints have been resolved in a manner that satisfies the customer. An unsatisfactory rating means that the company has a history and pattern of unresolved complaints [source: Calgary BBB]. A "no rating" mark could mean that there's not enough information on the company, but it's not always clear whether that's the case.
In an effort to make the rating system more transparent to consumers, several Better Business Bureaus have started to use a different system based on letters (AAA to F, or A+ to F). The Los Angeles BBB explains that a rating of AAA means the BBB has no reason to doubt the integrity of the business, while a rating of D or F means that consumers should be extremely cautious when doing business with the organization [source: Better Business Bureau of The Southland, Inc.]. Ratings are based on a composite of information in the reliability report with an emphasis on responsiveness to complaints and adherence to BBB standards [source: Mulkins].
Wise Giving guides don't include ratings but do indicate whether a charity is accredited by a BBB. Wise Giving guides compare each charity's behavior with the BBB's 20 Standards for Charity Accountability. If a charity doesn't meet one or more standards, the Wise Giving guides will indicate which standards it failed to comply with and why. Wise Giving guides also include detailed funding and spending information for each charity.
If you prefer your reports on paper, then you can always call your local BBB and request a hard copy.
Now let's talk about filing a complaint with a BBB.