Keeping businesses in line
By Robbie Dingeman
Advertiser Staff Writer
The Better Business Bureau of Hawai'i got started 65 years ago and in its first full year of operation, the Honolulu office handled 3,501 cases — more than three times the number that the founders expected.
Last year, consumers lodged 2,943 complaints against businesses, up from 2,625 the year before.
And the BBB logged an additional 233,421 inquiries about businesses, up from 165,729 the previous year, according to executive director Dwight Kealoha.
Kealoha noted that the core mission has remained constant — helping consumers find and work with trustworthy businesses.
And that role has broadened in other ways. Recent BBB efforts have included ways to evaluate charities helping victims of the earthquake in Haiti; tips to avoid telephone scams, including one that used the organization's name; and a listing of the top 10 scams and warnings of the past year.
In 1945, when the organization first opened its doors in Honolulu, it focused on the prevention of fraud.
Now, Kealoha said inquiries about businesses, their track records and complaint histories outnumber the cases investigated.
But he said the function is more and more important and valued by consumers, especially those wary of scams more prevalent in a recession economy.
The organization keeps records on businesses — some of which are members, some of which aren't — that consumers can access on their computers. Kealoha said the agency stays relevant by putting forth an unbiased record for businesses.
"Trust has a lot to do with it," Kealoha said.
Former Aloha Airlines marketing executive Milton Goto has worked with the Hawai'i BBB for more than 20 years in various roles.
Goto said it's important to consumers and to the community to have businesses that they can trust and "aren't just out to make a fast buck."
He said computer technology puts a staggering amount of information into consumers' hands.
"The existence of the bureau has meant strong business ethics," Goto said. "If it were not for the organization, things could be a lot more nasty than they are."
While there's always room for improvement, Goto said the bureau works hard to keep its reporting as neutral as possible.
Goto compared the unbiased information to what's published by Consumer Reports magazine.
And he said the reports help businesses as well.
"If businesses can improve their practices, it should encourage less regulation from government at every level."
Kealoha said computer technology has speeded up the information-gathering and accessibility from the 1960s, when all the information was kept in file cabinets that had to be hand-searched for records.
He said "truth in advertising" has been a big issue since the 1940s and still crops up.
Overall, Kealoha sees room for expansion and improvement. He said the organization might branch out to Guam in the coming year.
And the organization is investigating a plan to allow consumers to "text in" reports on businesses.
Kealoha said the organization is on alert to more scams that prey on people during an economic downturn.
"People really do want the information," he said. "They see the BBB as a steadfast organization that has information that they can trust."