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Business Consuming Interests

For consumers, more ways to complain

When the company Maggie Argent hired to make her mother's headstone didn't do the work, she turned to the forum that gives aggrieved customers an outlet — in the court of public opinion, if nothing else: the Internet.

Argent's online complaint against the Glen Burnie firm was part of a spurt of similar grievances against it late last year. She doesn't hold out much hope of getting her money back, but she appreciated the details she found from people in the same situation.

"You really get a lot of information about what happened," said Argent, a Baltimore attorney. "I imagine the other people who looked at that may well have had the same kind of reaction that I did, which was, 'Uh oh, this is sounding familiar.'"

Consumer complaints have been an online mainstay for years — review site Yelp is a decade old, with more than 53 million reviews to its name. But that world is evolving.

Government agencies are beginning to move into the space — not just taking complaints but sharing at least some details about them. Advocates hold up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and its downloadable complaint database as a model.

And the Better Business Bureau, which once limited disclosure of complaints online to a tally, now posts the actual complaints and the businesses' responses for everyone to see — minus personal information and curse words. Argent turned to the BBB for her complaint.

The switch to sharing full complaints came at BBBs across the country because consumers asked for it, said Angie Barnett, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Greater Maryland. Her BBB flipped the switch a year ago today and now has more than 6,000 complaints online.

"A consumer used to go to [a company's BBB page], and they would see the number of complaints, if any, and how those complaints were resolved, but the consumer couldn't see the detail — therefore, they wouldn't know, 'Is that complaint relevant to me?'" Barnett said. "All they knew is that it existed. So it's really giving the customer a voice by being able to publish the details of the complaint."

The bureaus are nonprofits that derive financial support from member companies and donations.

Marceline White, executive director at the Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition, said details about complaints help. Problems can multiply in the dark.

"One of the tenets of consumer protection is being informed and being aware in the marketplace," she said.

The ubiquity of complaints — from Amazon reviews to grievance sites like Pissed Consumer — has fueled an industry that helps businesses deal with them.

Consultants offer advice for turning angry customers into happy ones. Reputation-management firms flood the Web with positive information about clients to push the negative lower in search rankings.

Some companies simply sue. A D.C. home-improvement contractor took a customer to court recently, alleging in a $750,000 claim that her one-star review on Yelp and Angie's List defamed the owner. (A Fairfax County jury decided in January that she had — and that he had defamed her back in his responses, according to The Washington Post. No damages were awarded.)

Then there are the complaints about review sites. The BBB has received hundreds of complaints about Yelp in the last 12 months. A common grievance from businesses is that their positive reviews disappear while the negative ones remain. Yelp has said that its automated review filter works to weed out fake feedback — both positive and negative — but sometimes screens out legitimate ones.

Consumers shouldn't assume all online complaints are on the level, White said. But she thinks it's reasonable to see a lot of complaints against a company as a red flag.

Her advice to people who feel they've been wronged: Don't just leave a bad review — tell the government.

Details about problems help federal agencies, the Maryland attorney general's office and the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation spot scams and decide when new rules are needed, she said.

The federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau also passes complaints on to the company in question and requires a response within 15 days.

And the agency posts the complaints to an online database — consumerfinance.gov/complaintdatabase — so the public can see, for instance, how many Marylanders complained about a particular bank, debt collector or other financial services company. (The entire grievance isn't included, just the nature of it, such as "debt is not mine.")

Laura Murray, a consumer associate at U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a consumer advocacy organization, said there's power in that model of handling complaints.

"When consumers are able to make their voices heard — to regulators, and publicly — the industry pays attention," she said.

Argent, the Baltimore attorney, turned to the world of online complaints after asking the headstone company, Maryland Memorials, to make a headstone for her mother and clean the markers on four other relatives' graves. She said she paid about $4,500 upfront in August.

She said she still doesn't have the new headstone. And though the existing four were cleaned, they're not back in place.

Argent complained in November. The BBB said the company didn't respond to a spate of grievances filed around that time. By January, the BBB said, it found the company's phone number disconnected, its email no longer valid and its location vacant.

A regional bank won a $90,000 judgment against the company last May, and it is facing several lawsuits over contracts.

Maryland Memorials could not be reached for comment. Its telephone number remains disconnected. The owner's cellphone number — so full of messages it's not accepting any more — has a voice mail message indicating the company would be "closed until January the 13th."

jhopkins@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jsmithhopkins

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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