Tom Collier, 60, is the president of the Better Business Bureau of Southern Arizona. The native of San Angelo, Texas, came to Tucson in 1986 and has been the BBB's head honcho since December 1997. A former lobbyist and TV reporter/anchorman, Collier also served four years in the Air Force. He and his staff are rather busy; last year, the local BBB (which boasts a membership of about 2,000 businesses) handled about 3,400 complaints in Pima, Cochise, Santa Cruz, Graham and Greenlee and counties, as well as Sonora, Mexico. The goal of the BBB, says Collier: to be an "advocate for ethics in the marketplace." The office can be reached in person at 434 S. Williams Blvd. No. 102, on the phone at 888-5353, or online at tucson.bbb.org.
What kinds of things is the Better Business Bureau following right now?
I think identity theft and financial crime against Southern Arizona citizens is the big part of the iceberg that you can't see. Things like predatory lending get a lot of headlines, but they're hard (cases) to prove. ... Financial crime is under the radar of law-enforcement authorities, because we (as a society) have told the cops and the attorney general's office that our first priority is violent crime. We want to be protected from that. Our second priority is property crime. We've told the police and the attorney general that when stuff gets stolen, we want them to find it for us. The third priority is financial crime. ... The chances of getting a third-tier financial crime investigated are slim, much less getting it solved. The critical thing that people need to be aware of is: Be wise, and prevent yourself from becoming a victim. If you do fall victim, chances are you're not going to get help from law enforcement.
How can people be careful and not become victims?
People need to be less gullible. ... I have engraved in stone for my office a Navajo proverb I love: "The ear is the organ of learning." You can't learn while you're talking; only when you are listening. (Another) saying is: "Patience is the weapon that forces deception to reveal itself." When we are less gullible ... when we're patient and not greedy, we can protect ourselves from being a victim of financial crime. Knowledge really is power--it really is buying power. The consumer can make a great difference by voting with the wallet. When a company is not behaving ethically, don't buy there. But you have to know that in advance. That's why we are here.
What are some of the specific scams the BBB is watching?
Advance-fee loan scams. Just because a company has a Tucson address, it doesn't mean they're located here. A lot of mail drops just forward mail to scammers in Canada. I remember we got a scam using a mail drop here that was intercepted by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. What (the mail police) were doing was putting a seizure order on the mail drop and returning all the mail that came to it. One guy ... called us and said, "They returned my $750 I was paying to get this loan." So we called him, and he said he'd called (the loan "company"), "and they said to re-send the money to an address in Champlain, N.Y., and I did." We said, "You sent it to the crooks again!" And he said, "Yeah, but I really need that loan!" We just shook our heads and put the tick mark down for another victim.
Online sales (fraud) is also growing. I will pointblank say: If you go to an online shopping site, and all you see is an 800 number or an e-mail address, and you don't know where the site is located, don't shop there.
What tools are there to help consumers?
Well, we have our reliability reports. If there's no information on a company, and you want to know about it, ask us, and we'll develop it. Part of our job is to do trade-practices research. Also, if a company is outside our five counties, it's now possible to search all (Better Business) Bureaus in the United States and Canada online. You can do this search. The primary weapon as a consumer is a gigantic series of question marks: Ask questions, and check out the answers. It they sound fishy, or you're even a slight bit uncomfortable, don't spend your money there.
What local business has been the subject of the most complaints in the last year?
BladeRealms.com. It's an online sinkhole. Just kiss your money goodbye.
What does that company do?
They sell replica medieval armor and armaments and clothing. The problem is, they don't deliver them,
How many complaints?
It's at 179 from all over the world. This gives Tucson a black eye all over the world. The people who are concerned about economic development ought to be concerned about the reputation Tucson is getting online.