60 years of free inquiries comes to an end at BBB

October 12, 1994|By Ted Shelsby and Kim Clark | Ted Shelsby and Kim Clark,Sun Staff Writers

Add making a call to the Better Business Bureau to your list of things that used to be free that now cost money.

Beginning today -- providing that a glitch in the telephone lines can be corrected -- the Better Business Bureau of Greater Maryland Inc. will begin charging consumers who call seeking information on a company.

"So many people are calling on our inquiry lines to get reports we are simply too overloaded with work to handle them," BBB President Philip Kershner said in explaining the decision to begin charging for information that has been free for more than 60 years.

The fees will help the BBB defray operating costs and add services to meet increasing demands from consumers and businesses, he said. It will also cover the cost of adding four or five staff members to handle calls, Mr. Kershner said.

Under the new system, inquiries to the BBB will go through a "900" number and consumers will have the choice of paying 95 cents a minute that will be charged to their phone bills or paying a flat fee of $3.80 that will be billed on a credit card account.

If a problem with the telephone switching system is fixed, Mr. Kershner said, the pay-per-call program will begin today. "It will definitely start before the end of the week," he said.

For those who can't afford the fee and are willing to wait one to two weeks for information, he said, the BBB will continue to accept written requests free of charge.

Mr. Kershner said the fee also will help offset the cost of providing 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week service in which consumers can call to check on complaints filed against any of the approximately 10,000 state companies in the BBB's computer data base.

The local BBB organization is not the first to bill its customers for information. The practice started in New York City in 1991, said Holly Cherico, a spokeswoman for the Council of Better Business Bureaus in Arlington, Va.

She said the number of calls to the BBB in New York City declined once consumers had to pay for the information, but have since bounced back.

"It's being widely accepted," she said. "Consumers seem to feel that $3.80 is not a large investment to make before having a new roof put on their house or buying a car."

Lucy Weisz, deputy chief of the Consumer Protection Division of the Maryland attorney general's office, said her agency still offers an alternative to paying for information to get the lowdown on companies before signing on the dotted line.

She said the division gets about 100,000 calls a year from consumers seeking information on companies before making a major purchase. The office takes calls between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. without a charge, she said.

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