Steve Bernas, CEO, Better Business Bureau of Chicago and Northern Illinois
Chicago BBB chief has navigated scandal to rebuild public trust
Steve Bernas took over the Chicago-area Better Business Bureau amid a sea change in how consumers research and complain about companies. (Michael Tercha/Chicago Tribune / February 19, 2013)
Consumers should regularly check out businesses, because you can't identify dishonest businesspeople just by meeting them, even if you're a 25-year veteran of the BBB.
"You cannot tell," Bernas said. "I've been across the table from criminals. ... I've been fooled. They're everyday people."
After one especially heated mediation meeting with a crooked businessman who made Bernas angry, he asked the man, "How do you sleep at night?"
"He turns to me and says, 'I sleep in silk sheets. How do you sleep?'
"Now he's in jail in Ohio. I hope he enjoys the sheets in the jail cell."
A cooperative spirit
Among his accomplishments, Bernas counts maintaining good working relationships with other consumer protection groups, including government ones. He has worked with the state attorney general's office, the FBI, the FTC, the city of Chicago and the Chicago Police Department. He sits on the FTC Task Force for Consumer Fraud and the attorney general committees about automobile advertising and charitable trusts.
"We all have a relationship that I have fostered over the years," he said. "When I started 25 years ago, all the government agencies would sit in a room and wouldn't talk to each other." Each was territorial and sought credit for their own organization.
But now, it's more common to work together. That has meant more than a feel-good atmosphere in consumer-protection circles. Consumer agencies now share information and can quickly agree on which group will take the lead. That produces quicker action against scammers and unethical business owners.
Bernas has worked repeatedly with the Illinois attorney general's office on such issues as unscrupulous debt-collection practices and cramming, or unauthorized charges on phone bills.
"If I have 20 complaints, he usually has two to three times more complaints," Madigan said. "So, he's a real good check on, 'Is this really a big problem?'
"It's just imperative that we partner. ... Sometimes we call him; other times he calls us about something that he's seeing that's potentially a problem."
In the five years that Bernas has led the Chicagoland BBB, he's endured his share of crisis. The most dire instances were related to a new letter-grading system the national BBB wanted to implement nationwide.
Before the grading system was entrenched across the country, a Better Business Bureau in the Los Angeles area was exposed for improving ratings on companies that each paid several hundred dollars in membership fees. For example, it showed a fake company called Hamas, the same name as the Palestinian political party, got an A-minus rating from the BBB after it paid $425 in membership dues.
It seemed to confirm critics' harshest allegations: that the BBB was akin to a protection racket, in which companies received protection from bad ratings if they paid membership dues. BBB officials repeatedly denied those allegations.
Bernas was left to defend the honor of the Chicago-area BBB by talking to the media about how the scandal did not involve the local chapter.
"I felt personally attacked by what they did. I was very angry by what I saw. I read the report (about the incident), which is not public, and I almost wanted to cry. I was at a point where I put my heart and soul into this organization, and it took one opportunity to take away trust. We regained it, but it took some time."
While some of the most egregious examples of impropriety were uncovered in the Los Angeles-area BBB, the group's grading system of companies came under fire nationwide.
In January 2009, the BBB changed from a simple satisfactory-unsatisfactory grade for companies to a system of giving letter grades A through F, with pluses and minuses. The new system gave extra points to paying members, the argument being that accredited businesses were already checked out. Businesses that didn't pay, no matter how consumer-friendly, could not get the highest grade of A-plus.