Critics have called the Better Business Bureau (BBB) a scam and a ripoff — an aging nonprofit organization that extorts companies to the tune of hundreds or thousands of dollars a year to maintain a meaningless rating and accreditation. With all that controversy, you’d think the BBB would tread carefully around real consumer advocates, lest they end up in their crosshairs.
But you’d be wrong.
Last week, one of our readers pointed out that the BBB had given Elliott Advocacy an F rating! The circumstances around this failing grade are so bizarre and so infuriating that you will probably never believe another word the BBB says. (last updated on Aug 4, 2021)
Warning: The following story involves gun-toting, foul-mouthed consumers who are leveraging the BBB for their own selfish purposes. These cowards are hiding behind a veil of anonymity eagerly offered by the BBB. But the real villain is a once-respected consumer organization that used to represent better businesses. It’s using a variety of unethical tactics to pressure a smaller competitor to either pony up $500 in ransom or erase it from the internet.
And I have to tell you, I wouldn’t believe the story — except that it happened to us.
(Update: A few hours after this story appeared, the BBB changed our grade to an “NR” — “NOT RATED.” It also removed the review from F-Bomb Girl.)
Our introduction to the BBB: Adventures with Mr. Guns & Ammo
Our introduction to the BBB came in 2019. That’s when we received a complaint against UPS from a reader I’ll call Mr. Guns & Ammo.
He publicly posted his story to our forum and our volunteer advocates tried to give him some guidance. When he didn’t get the response he hoped for, he demanded that we delete his forum thread, but as I explained last week, we don’t do that.
His next move was to file a complaint against Elliott Advocacy with the Arizona Attorney General, the Illinois Attorney General, and the Better Business Bureau. The Arizona and Illinois AGs promptly dismissed the complaint because it had no merit.
But not the BBB.
Instead of recognizing the absurdity of the case — that someone had posted a complaint on a free public forum where he was offered no assurances of privacy and then threatened us with a bad review if we didn’t immediately remove it — the BBB created a listing for us.
The BBB also sent a letter to me at my home address (listed as the headquarters for Elliott Advocacy) and emailed me, requesting a response. That was the decent thing to do, but as you’ll see in a moment, it was an anomaly.
The forum advocates ultimately decided to temporarily remove the thread because the original complaint involved ammunition. It was also clear, based on Mr. Guns & Ammo’s many emails to us, that he had my home address.
But this person has a real name, and we are not afraid to publish it: William Forster.
And since we are no longer at the address he has, Forster can enjoy his new celebrity status as the guy who threatened a nonprofit organization that tried to help him.
What did the BBB have to do with this? Well, there was an implied threat by the BBB that if we didn’t do what Forster asked, it would slap us with an F rating. That was certainly something our advocacy team considered when we removed Forster’s thread from our forums, but ultimately, it was the fear that an angry and armed consumer could show up at my doorstep that persuaded our forum team to temporarily close the thread.
I have no idea why the BBB would give a reader like Forster anonymity.
But it gets worse.
Someone has made a BBB complaint about you!
In October, I received an email from the BBB saying that we had another complaint. Now, bear in mind that we’re a nonprofit that, like the BBB, helps people with their complaints. We aren’t taking money from anyone in exchange for our services, and we don’t have “customers” per se. That didn’t seem to make a difference to the BBB.
I clicked on the link and it went nowhere. And that’s the last I heard from the BBB. I didn’t receive a letter or a follow-up email. I didn’t see the grievance until last week when a BBB representative helped me create an account and log in.
It turns out there was a complaint — but not about us. It was against U-Haul by a reader named Jennifer Johnson.
Yes, Jennifer, you’re getting your 15 minutes of fame too. Congratulations, you filed a complaint against the wrong organization.
And there was another one, too. A woman named Olga Long had a problem with JustFly — a company that truly deserves an F rating and has one (and on every review site, not just the BBB).
Interestingly, we didn’t receive any notifications from the BBB about Long’s case. No letters, no emails.
I know what you’re thinking: Is it possible the mail wasn’t forwarding to our new address or that the email was getting blocked? Well, I can confirm that mail is forwarding and I also asked the BBB to send a test message last week. I received it.
The result was predictable. With no opportunity to respond or set the record straight, we received an F rating with the BBB in late February.
It turns out the BBB was just getting started.
F-Bomb Girl threatens to knock us offline
That brings us to the F-Bomb Girl. (Yep, it’s about to get stranger.)
A few days later, I was stunned to see this review on our BBB page:
Who was Chris K?
She is none other than Christina L. Kelly of Springfield, Va.
(No Christina, we won’t give you anonymity like the Better Business Bureau.)
Her problem? Well, she has a lot of problems.
My advocacy team has helped Kelly with information and other guidance over the years. But her latest issue was with Amazon. The company canceled one of her recent orders after rejecting her credit card.
Several times Amazon representatives politely explained that she needed to call her credit card company to resolve the problem. Kelly didn’t like that answer and began to bombard Amazon with expletive-filled emails, which she copied our team on.
Unsurprisingly, this tactic did not result in a positive outcome. In fact, Amazon began to ignore emails from Kelly.
So she turned her sights on the Elliott Advocacy team. She blamed us for her complete self-advocacy failure. And she threatened to erase us from the internet.
But had my advocacy team ignored her, as she claimed? Let’s have a look at her last email to us.
Our spam filters probably stopped some of her obscenity-laced emails from reaching us. But as a matter of policy, we don’t respond to abusive messages.
The BBB allows you to write a brief rebuttal to a customer. But when I tried to share the content of Kelly’s latest complaint, the BBB’s system rejected it. Turns out it also refuses to accept emails with profanity.
We asked the BBB to remove the reviews, and this is what it said
It seems clear to me that we don’t belong on the BBB site. We’re a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit, and we offer a free service to consumers. Almost none of the criteria listed on the BBB site apply to us.
There are also the optics of this fiasco. Having a big competitor give us a failing grade without even an opportunity to respond to the complaints certainly looks like an enormous, well-funded nonprofit trying to extinguish a smaller one.
I presented the information to Christine Constran, our designated BBB contact, last week. I politely informed her that we’d received an F for complaints against other businesses, not including Mr. Guns & Ammo.
She did not respond.
So we contacted the head of public relations at the BBB, Katherine Hutt, asking her to consider deleting our reviews.
Recently it has come to our attention that the BBB has created a business page for our nonprofit site and branded it with an F rating. This appears to be an error in the BBB system for the following reasons:
- We aren’t a business — we’re a 501 3c (the BBB has the organization. miscategorized as a “Sole proprietorship” and lists Christopher as the “customer service person”).
- We don’t have customers.
- Our mediation services are completely free.
- When we accept a case for direct mediation, we make no guarantee that the case will have a successful outcome.
- Our educational articles are free as well.
- The majority of our staff members are volunteers.
Consumers are now contacting us and asking why we have an F rating on the BBB and questioning our legitimacy based on that page. We rely on reader donations and corporate underwriters to fund our nonprofit — we never charge anyone who requests help from our advocacy team and we make no promises to anyone who contacts us.
We are very successful at what we do as evidenced by the review site “Great Nonprofits” where we have a 5-star rating with over 200 positive reviews from consumers who have come to us for help. In the past year, we’ve retrieved nearly half a million dollars for the consumers who have contacted us from the companies who owed these refunds. Unfortunately, the BBB page is damaging our reputation as a nonprofit champion for consumers and there has been no explanation as to why the BBB put up that page and branded us with an F.
Could you review this information and let us know if you can help fix this problem?
Hutt referred us back to the local BBB that had posted our listing. As to removing our nonprofit, the answer was a firm “no.”
I followed up with Hutt directly late last week, pointing out that people were filing complaints against us, believing that we were a different company. I asked her again to remove the erroneous reviews and to consider deleting our listing.
“I’m sorry, Chris, but our policies don’t allow that,” she said. “Once we’ve received a consumer complaint, it has to be published.”
I couldn’t believe it.
“We are deeply concerned that we arbitrarily received an F with no notification from the BBB,” I replied. “It appears no effort was made to notify us of our pending F rating.”
I added, “I realize many of these issues are beyond your control, but I wanted to give the BBB an opportunity to correct this before we publish an article.”
She never answered.
What this means — and what we’re doing about it
If the BBB is bullying a small nonprofit that helps consumers, I can only imagine what it’s doing to other businesses.
The BBB doesn’t take the time to review complaints to ensure they are filed against the correct company. It doesn’t notify companies when they have a pending negative review. And it drags its feet when it comes to correcting false information on its site. It’s highly unprofessional and opportunistic.
Maybe we could make all of this go away by ponying up $500 to become an “accredited” BBB member. But we’d prefer it if the BBB just fixed our listing because it’s the right thing to do.
So here’s our next step: As with many other businesses we research and report on, we’ve published the names and phone numbers of the BBB executives.
I will never cite the BBB as a source in any of my future news articles or reports. The BBB has zero credibility. Any journalist who quotes a BBB source or cites BBB data is seriously misinformed.
And now my team and I have a bee in our bonnets about the BBB. That means you can expect more stories about this shady organization. After all, our site’s editorial coverage is driven by consumer complaints — especially when we’re the ones with a complaint.
After we originally published this article, the legal counsel of the BBB contacted us and requested a meeting with us to discuss this “problem.” We met with their executive team and the end result was a mutual agreement that Elliott Advocacy is not a business that should be listed on the BBB — we are a charity without customers. The F grade was determined by all involved to be an auto-error. Since that day, the BBB permanently removed our business page on its site and only lists us in their charity report.