DennisBeaverJuly 11, 2009 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver

A restaurant advertised a two-for-one senior discount. A couple saw the ad, went in, and asked a waitress about the discount before ordering. She stated, “No, we don’t have a discount for seniors.”

They then spoke with the manager, who said, “You look far too young to ask for a senior discount. I want to see your ID.” After confirming the husband’s age, she then asked about his wife. “The manager told us that we did not qualify for any discount, because my wife isn’t a senior.”

“As the waitress had already brought our coffee and bread, we were too embarrassed to get up and leave, but the meal was ruined even before we placed our order,” the husband wrote in a complaint which he filed with the Better Business Bureau.

Is it legal to attract customers with an ad and then when they respond, refuse to honor the offer or require that they pay more than the advertised price?

“Clearly, if the husband qualifies as a senior, they cannot legally refuse to honor their two for one special, regardless of the wife’s age. This illegal conduct could get the restaurant owner — or corporate management — sued in all 50 states for (1) deceptive business practices, (2) misleading advertising, (3) unfair competition, and possibly, (3) bait and switch,” according to professor of hospitality law, attorney Stephen Barth at the University of Houston’s Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management.

Now, want to guess what the Better Business Bureau of Central California told the couple in its Action Line column?

“Your treatment sounds like it was rude and insensitive, but, unfortunately, not illegal,” wrote Vickie Sanders, assistant director of business services.

I’m sorry, not illegal?? When that BBB’s column appeared in a San Joaquin Valley newspaper Saturday, June 27, I received phone calls from several readers that day, all asking if what they had read could possibly be correct.

“When I read and re-read that statement unfortunately not illegal, the writer was obviously giving legal advice by telling the couple they have no claim. Is Vickie Sanders a lawyer?” one of my readers asked.

No, she’s not a lawyer. I asked her. She never even discussed what she was going to write with an attorney, claiming, “At the BBB, we don’t give out legal advice.”

When I ran her comments by a state bar ethics attorney, his response was, “These comments can easily be seen as stating both a legal opinion and as legal advice, wrong legal advice. And when a non-lawyer does that — depending upon the state where it occurs — it can be viewed as the unauthorized practice of law.

“Start with trust,” has been the motto of the Better Business Bureau for close to 100 years. During much of that time the BBB was a true friend of the consumer — a powerful non-governmental force to keep American business run in an honest and ethical way working closely with law enforcement to put crooked business owner behind bars.

It got involved, helping the little guy.

Well, I’ve got a question for today’s Better Business Bureau. Can you be trusted? Believed? Why do you allow a non-attorney staff member to give out legal advice? Why are you now using the term “accredited” to describe your members?

Is it to add an image of being superior to some other perfectly honest business owner who did not fall for a BBB telemarketer’s often misleading sales pitch or who could not afford the hundreds — up to thousands of dollars — to buy a membership?

The Better Business Bureau has a real problem with its own credibility. You need to look at the BBB as an independently run, money making franchise business, frequently guilty of the same illegal, rotten behavior it has accused others of. Not all BBB’s of course, but enough, nationwide, to become the focus of dozens of newspaper, radio and TV investigations. Just Google them and hang on for bumpy ride.

A Better Business Bureau is a sales organization. They sell memberships. They sell an image. The image they sell is that their members — now called accredited members — are somehow more ethical, trustworthy and honest than non-members.

“That’s the value in being a member. You get a credibility boost just for being a member because the public thinks so highly of us. But it is just the opposite if you are not a member,” I was pitched by BBB membership recruiters.

“If I am not a member?” I asked. “That’s right. If someone calls, asking about XYZ Automotive — and they are not a member — we say, “No, they are not accredited by the Better Business Bureau.”

Is this pressure or what? “Join or else?” When I heard that from a BBB telemarketer who called me, I asked him if the words blackmail, extortion, or a selling protection were part of his vocabulary.

What does it take to become a member of the BBB? Not much, and, in my opinion, it would be difficult for virtually anyone to apply and not be accepted. “We do not conduct background, credit or criminal history checks on anyone applying for membership,” I was repeatedly told.

But today’s BBB doesn’t have to worry about their members doing anything which harms their image. They do a nice job of it all by themselves.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.