Bill’s job is to follow up with all of the just plain weird things that we hear about at BBB – from companies who consistently get the same kind of complaint, to tips from other BBBs, to business owners who apply for accreditation but turn out to have extensive criminal records. When details about a business just don’t fit, our staff hands the file over to Bill so he can figure out if there’s a problem and who can fix it.
Bill started doing journalism for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Beacon before coming to work at BBB. A big comic book fan, Bill was also instrumental in breaking the 2011 story about a Granite City resident and longtime collector of Superman memorabilia Mike Meyer whose “friend” broke into his home and stole a large part of his prized collection. “It seemed that the police were only marginally interested in the case, even though he knew who had taken his items,” Smith says. Bill helped get the story picked up by major media outlets, and it ran on the Huffington Post, BoingBoing, and Fox 2 News. With the support of the Internet, Meyer was able to help police track down the culprit and recover most of his stolen items.
As you can imagine, there is often a wide range of issues that BBB asks Bill to investigate. This week, he’s dealt with a couple of door-to-door magazine sales firms that don’t seem to actually deliver magazines, a contractor who registered a new business in Missouri on the same day that he pleaded guilty to fraud charges in Arizona, and the St. Louis branch of a Florida timeshare rental scheme– among other things.
We somehow managed to tear Bill away from his enormous pile of interview transcripts to talk with us about his work at BBB. Here’s what Bill had to say.
BBB: So Bill, whenever you get mentioned by anybody outside our office, they talk about you like you’re Sherlock Holmes. Is it true?
BS: No way! Sherlock’s deductive reasoning isn’t really how I work at all. When I was a kid, I used to like to put together plastic model kits – it was fun to take a lot of loose pieces and eventually glue them all together into an airplane or a car or a Godzilla figure. The investigation process is very similar – taking a lot of little bits of stray information and turning it into something recognizable. At the end of the process, hopefully, we will have a finished product that educates and informs the public. Although I will say that, after you’ve done this a while, you seems to have a kind of radar that senses when you might need to do an alert, sometimes with just a few bits of information.
BS: Our investigations come from everywhere: A BBB staffer who notices a pattern of complaints involving a company or individual, a phone call from a consumer, a complaint search of our national database, a TV ad or newspaper story, a conversation with an old friend. Typically, I try to concentrate on those investigations that are more timely or which appear to be doing the most harm at the moment. Then I begin the process of determining what is going on in the complaint and what BBB can do about it.
BBB: What do you enjoy most about the research process?
BS: The best part is the interviews with victims of unethical business practices. It is an opportunity to demonstrate that there are people who care about their situation and to make them feel empowered. In many cases, these people have tried everything possible to make things right, but without any success. We can become their voice and – because of the trust we have garnered in the community over the years – our voice can be quite loud and emphatic.
BBB: Not least because of the thoroughness of your work!
BS: Well, thanks! I think it’s one of the best things that BBB can do for the community. BBB, as an organization, is rooted in exposing bad actors in the business arena and bringing them and their activities to the public’s attention. We believe it is crucial to what we do and who we are. We have no law enforcement authority and do not own a printing press or TV station, but because of the accuracy and fairness of our work, we have been able to earn the public trust.
BBB: We’ve asked you to check on some strange things throughout the years. What are some of the wackiest cases that you’ve worked on at BBB?
BS: Wow, there have been many. A couple that come to mind: There was a gentleman from St. Louis who completely fabricated a marketing company. He created a website, a board of directors, testimonials, news releases about his company, leased office space – and there was no business at all. There never was. It appeared he did all this so he could charge people for phony employment drug tests or to steal their personal information. A second, similar case, involved another man from the St. Louis area who was telling people he could eliminate their utility bills if they would make a small upfront “good faith” payment to his charity. There was no charity and the man never assisted the consumers.
BBB: It can be hard to believe that real people make those choices.
BS: It can be scary sometimes! The main thing that rattles me, though, is anytime we get a call from somebody who has been targeted in a news release, claiming the release was in error. For an instant, I always think: What did I mess up? In every case, though, it turns out that they are angry because they or their businesses have been singled out for criticism, focused media attention on them and hurt their bottom lines. We have never had to retract a press release.
BBB: What do you wish the St. Louis community knew about BBB?
BS: While we have more than 6,000 accredited businesses, I am constantly amazed that there are so many business people out there who don’t understand what we do. Some people even believe we are somehow part of an organization that exists solely to perpetuate its own existence and wield power. In fact, BBB was organized by businessmen and women who felt that unethical or corrupt business behavior was injurious to the well being of our community. We work diligently to earn the trust of businesses and consumers.
BBB: I guess the Post-Dispatch didn’t really have problems like that.
BS: No, but working at BBB has its advantages. The competition for good stories at the Post-Dispatch was always keen. If there was a good story, everybody wanted it. Here, I get to keep all the good stories for myself! I also enjoy the aggressiveness of the leadership at BBB in St. Louis and how quickly we can react to a problem in the marketplace.
BBB: So are you glad to be at BBB?
BS: Working at BBB has been extremely rewarding. Almost every day, something happens that makes you feel as if you are making a real difference in protecting, educating and empowering people. If you continually keep in mind that you are acting on behalf of honest consumers and good businesses (giving a voice to those who otherwise might not have a voice), it keeps you energized to the point that you feel you can go through brick walls to get to the truth (of course you can’t, but it certainly makes you feel that way).