Do Your Homework Before Doing Your Home Work

Mike West- Once you've checked the yellow pages or circled some ads in the newspaper, it's time to do the investigative work. One place to start is a company that's paid to share information on local service providers. "Angie's List" is just that sort of company, selling memberships to a "sort of" consumer grapevine. For $35 a year you get to swap notes on how others have been treated by a company. Spokeswoman Laurel Greszler says the idea isn't a new one; neighbors and friends have shared such information for decades. But people now have less time to check around and she says they would rather just pay a fee when they want to do some checking on things like mechanics, plumbers and contractors. Greszler says Angie's List has about 7,000 members in Northeast Ohio and the ten-year old Columbus-based business has grown to serve 10 major metropolitan areas. She credits having information she says others don't.

Laurel Greszler- We collect detailed customer satisfaction reports, so it's not about how long the company has been in existence and whether or not they're a member of the better business bureau, but at resident X's house. Did they wipe their feet before they entered the house, did they clean up after themselves, did they show up when they said they would, did they give you a written estimate.

MW- The membership fee includes a monthly newsletter and the company will also "unofficially" help resolve disputes with service providers if requested. Greszler suggests the Better Business Bureau, which provides a similar service, is biased because it is funded by the same members who are the subject of consumer's questions.

LG- We are not trying to replace the Better Business Bureau, or the services they provide or the attorney general's office. We are trying to add an additional service, and the difference between Angie's List and the Better Business Bureau is one which is we are defiantly on the consumer end of things. The BBB collects reports from consumers, it is a free service but they service more directly service providers.

MW- But the head of the Cleveland Better Business Bureau disagrees. David Weiss says his organization doesn't favor businesses over consumers. While business owner's dues support the BBB, Weiss insists that every complaint they receive gets a response and the bureau kicks out members that abuse consumers. He also says the Better Business Bureau will provide information on non-member businesses as well.

David Weiss- There is a misperception that we only do reports on members of the Better Business Bureau and that's simply untrue. We have about 3,000 companies that are members of the Better Business Bureau, but we have about 20,000 reports on our database, and whether a company is a member of the Better Business Bureau or not they get the reports that they earn.

MW- At least one way of preventing people from cheating on consumer lists is allowing them to make only one report every 6 months. But Weiss insists that any consumer list can be manipulated.

DW- I've seen a lot of services, especially online, where customers are surveyed to determined their experience with a particular provider, and it would be very easy on the one hand for a very disgruntled customer to lodge multiple negative complaints or negative information against the company. It would be just as possible, and I've seen this, to have overzealous companies have their employees phone in or key in voluminous positive references for their company. The future of these services depends on their ability offer credible data.

MW- Todd Boyer is a spokesman for the Ohio Attorney General's Office. He says while no method of protection is perfect, he suggests asking more than one source for a recommendation, and being on the lookout for hidden costs.

Todd Boyer- Consumers should also be aware that often times there's a fee involved and there is always a possibility these kind of services can be manipulated if folks choose to do so. We would also encourage folks in addition to checking with some of these private referral companies to double and triple check by also checking with the local Better Business Bureau and to also check with our consumer protection section.

MW- Boyer says consumer affairs and protecting the public from con artists and crooked business operators is a big part of the Attorney General's job. Staff will also conduct background checks on request. Even with several places to go for information, Boyer says a lot of people just don't do their homework before making a major purchase.

TB- It does take a significant investment of time and effort to do a good job of checking the background of a company. And often times in today's busy schedule, it's difficult to find that time and find the desire to invest that time. But generally if you are going to spend a significant amount of money for a good or service, we would certainly recommend that you take the time because often times it will pay off more to invest that time at the front end than have to invest a lot of time at the back end trying to fix a problem once it's already happened.

MW- Angie's List, the Better Business Bureau and the Attorney General all agree on a few hard and fast rules. Consumers should conduct background checks on several businesses before you signing any contract, and get everything in writing before commissioning any job. In Cleveland, I'm Mike West, 90.3 WCPN 90.3 FM.

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