Every day I hear from consumers looking for help with defective cars they have bought. They often mention that they might call the Better Business Bureau, as if that might accomplish something. The problem is this: The BBB will not help you in a meaningful way.
Everyone has heard of the Better Business Bureau but few think too much about it until a need for help arises. Who is the BBB and can they help? The Better Business Bureau is not a governmental agency. It is a non-profit organization funded largely by money they solicit from businesses. Tuck that away for a moment: They are funded by businesses.
The BBB works like this: If you own a business, you pay the BBB a fee and they will let you put a BBB sticker on your front door and use their logo in your advertising materials. They also rate businesses - giving better grades to businesses that have paid them money. Many high profile businesses have complained that they got lower grades after refusing to play along with what looks like a protection racket.
As a test, some local businessmen in Los Angeles created a business they called “Hamas,” and paid the BBB to become a member. The BBB gave Hamas an A rating. On the other hand, Disneyland got an “F” rating, presumably because it would not pay the shakedown, I mean, membership fee.
But the BBB takes care of its members. If you, a consumer, file a complaint with them about a member, they will forward your complaint to the business and offer to “mediate” your dispute. Keeping in mind that the BBB is a private organization funded by the businesses they try to “Better,” you might be able to guess how this will turn out.
The BBB holds itself out as a savior to many people, including those who have bought defective cars. Keep in mind that in most states, the lemon law says attorney fees in a successful case will be paid by the manufacturer if you win. Most attorneys who handle these cases do so without charging the consumer anything. So why would you need to use the BBB? The BBB’s “Autoline” program brags that you can file a complaint with the BBB “and you don’t even have to hire a lawyer.” Wow, they just saved you no dollars!
Of course, the BBB does not explain this. I would suggest that is because the BBB accepts a large amount of its funding from automakers. Those automakers would rather have you file a claim with the BBB which will go nowhere than a lawsuit with an attorney that will force them to abide by the law.
Further, the BBB site contains misleading and false information. It lists “participating” manufacturers. That is, these manufacturers “participate” with the BBB on Lemon Law claims. One is Indian Motorcycles - which is fascinating since Michigan’s Lemon Law does not cover motorcycles. Another participant is Oldsmobile, your father’s car company that went defunct more than a decade ago. Suffice it to say that a person who bought an Olds before GM went bankrupt has no lemon law claim today.
The program also displays an “executive summary” of Michigan’s Lemon Law which is riddled with errors and outright falsehoods. It says the law covers vehicles bought by businesses; that the statute of limitations is four (4) years from the date of discovery of the defect; and, it hints that a consumer is required to use the BBB arbitration. It’s a convoluted argument but the BBB is clearly trying to steer people away from using lawyers and the court system in the hopes they will use the business-friendly BBB.
The upshot is that if you go through the process - which is a waste of time - the BBB will 1) rule against you and say you have no case, or 2) rule in your favor and “award” you a repair of your vehicle. Yup, I’ve heard from many people that they had gone to all the trouble of playing along with the BBB only to be told that the BBB would “order” the manufacturer to repair the client’s vehicle. Despite the fact that the last chance came and went long ago and they couldn’t repair it then.
Still want to file with the BBB? Like any other consumer transaction, the key is to know what you are getting yourself into. Understand that the BBB works for businesses and not you (unless you are the business being complained about by a consumer) and that you will likely accomplish nothing with your filing. If you enjoy making noise and don’t mind wasting your time, the BBB is perfect for you.
However, if you want to actually get the remedy to which you are entitled under the Lemon Law, avoid the BBB. Talk to a lawyer. It’ll cost the same as the BBB route but you will have a much better chance of success. After all: Anything is better than nothing.
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Steve Lehto has been practicing law for 23 years, almost exclusively in consumer protection and Michigan lemon law. He wrote The Lemon Law Bible and Chrysler’s Turbine Car: The Rise and Fall of Detroit’s Coolest Creation.
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