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Stepping down from 'policing the marketplace'

For 30 years, David Polino has been the face of the Better Business Bureau's Buffalo office, to which he was elected president in 1995.

He will officially retire from the bureau on June 1 and spend the next year as a consultant helping incoming president Warren Clark transition into leadership.

>Q: How many members do you have locally and nationally?

A: Nationally about 450,000, and locally we have just under 6,000 here. It goes up, slowly, but it is going up. This bureau lost about 1,000 members during the recession and we've recouped that, but we didn't lose any revenue. We did a really good job of dealing with our money correctly and just purchased a building in Amherst.

>Q: How have scams changed over time?

A: It's funny, over 30 years things have really changed, but the only thing that has changed has been the delivery mechanisms. Now most scams are delivered through email, through phishing, through Facebook and so on, but the schemes themselves have stayed pretty much the same.

>Q: How about legitimate businesses doing things they shouldn't?

A: It's almost a misnomer to say that there are ethical and unethical businesses. There aren't. There are only ethical and unethical people. And I don't think the ratio has changed very much in a long time.

>Q: When it comes to scams, would you say identity theft is the worst thing happening today?

A: Identity theft is probably the most life-altering thing that can happen because it can take years to set the record straight and sometimes you never recover from it fully. Even psychologically, people feel real violated, and they are really violated.

>Q: How has the BBB adapted to going after scammers who are using new methods?

A: There was no difference than in 1927 -- we're trying to keep up. Some of the crooks are so innovative you imagine that if they were just to direct their energy to legitimate business they would be rich anyways.

The major change that I've seen is the borderless marketplace. When I first began at the bureau, about 90 percent of the complaints were local consumers complaining about local businesses.

Now, [even] if you wash out the scams and the collection agency complaints, because those are nationwide calls that are being made, almost 50 percent of complaints come from people outside New York State. It's just amazing.

>Q: How does the BBB work with other agencies or law enforcement?

A: On the run-of-the-mill consumer complaints, we work with us. But the really bad ones, we work with all kinds of agencies. A lot of people don't realize how closely we work hand in hand with the FBI, the Federal Trade Commission, the attorney general's office, the postal inspector and so on, and on almost a daily basis.

>Q: Some have said the BBB favors members or is more critical of nonmembers. What are your thoughts on that?

A: I know that the suspicion will always be there when you're reporting on consumer-urgent activity and only one side of that equation is paying you the money.

We police the existing membership constantly, and if a member falls below any standard, they are suspended and -- if the problem is not corrected -- expelled. We expel between 20 and 30 members each year.

>Q: How does a company benefit by being a member of the BBB?

A: We help identify them as ethical places to shop and do business. Also, a portion of the dues that they pay help us to do what we do in the marketplace by identifying bad players. In the long run, it's helping out legitimate businesses by steering people away from the bad guys.

>Q: Looking back on your 30 years, is there one scam or victim that seems particularly egregious?

A: We were a hotbed in the '90s for telemarketing fraud, and it was just horrible. You wonder how those people look at themselves in the mirror.

One of the more interesting issues, there's a tiny, little town right up near the Canadian border called Champlain, New York.

We have over 350 "businesses" that we've identified in Champlain. It's primarily Canadian crooks who have taken mailbox drops in this little town just on the other side of the border and they market all over the United States scams aimed at consumers. So a few years ago, it was to the point that 40 percent of all BBB complaints nationwide filed by businesses against other businesses came from Champlain, New York.

>Q: Are online review sites or things like Angie's List a threat to the BBB?

A: There are as many phony ratings sites now, including ones established by criminals to "rate" their company along with other companies.

Angie's List does things a little differently than we do. Angie's List links to our reports from theirs, so it's more of a cooperative arrangement. You can't have too much data.

>Q: Why did you decide now was the time to retire?

A: I'm 67 years old. We have a good succession plan in place. Financially and with personnel it's really the right time to do it. My successor [Warren Clark] is one of the board members here who also served on the national board and was an officer in the national organization, so he's well-positioned to take over.

>Q: What does the future hold for the BBB?

A: I think we'll continue to do things we have done. New initiatives will be up to him. He's got a great team here and I'll be available as well helping from the sidelines, but he is a very innovative, smart man. The board of directors is great here and they'll continue to do a great job policing the marketplace.