By Rod Davis, CEO at BBB Serving Southeast Florida and the Caribbean
Like many organizations and businesses, BBB did not know what to expect as the COVID-19 pandemic began to hit. What we did know is that being nimble, adapting to change, and communication with staff and customers would be essential. During this time of uncertainty, consumers are seeking information and partners they can trust.
At our BBB, we have seen a 32% increase in visitors to our local BBB site in the first part of the year from 1,965,127 in 2019 to 2,592,966 in 2020. Those visitors are consulting the information BBB gathers from the experiences of consumers to evaluate businesses so they can find businesses they can trust. The number of BBB Profile Reports on businesses reviewed by consumers is also rising significantly. The number of reports consulted grew from 2,778,314 in 2019 to 3,506,727 in the first half of 2020, a 26% increase.
We were also wondering whether consumers would continue to hire contractors and make purchases during this time and while in-store purchases diminished, online purchases have increased 49% in April 2020 from the same period in 2019. Consumers coming to BBB seeking to hire contractors has also increased significantly. The number of requests from consumers to businesses using the BBB request a quote tool (www.SEFlorida.App.BBB.org/Connect) has increased by 53.5% from 2019 to 2020.
Unfortunately, with more online activity there comes more opportunity for consumers to be vulnerable to pop up unethical businesses, scams, and identity thieves. Some scammers are also targeting businesses and taking advantage of the loan and grant programs coming from local, state, and federal initiatives. It is essential that consumers and business staff take precautions to avoid scams. One of the reasons we are pleased with the added traffic coming to BBB is that it demonstrates consumers are taking time to research their purchases. It is important to be informed and check out each business, website, and invoice before you move forward. Please encourage your family, friends, and co-workers to check out each opportunity at www.BBB.org/SEFL or other sites.
BBB has set up a site focused on COVID-19 related issues www.BBB.org/Council/Coronavirus. Employment scams are again hitting the vulnerable offering work at home. One recent scam asked a “potential job applicant” to connect via WhatsApp. The applicant was asked for her name, date of birth, license number, and after the interview was concluded and the “employer” was ready to hire the applicant, she was asked to provide her bank, account number, and password so the employer could deposit a check into her account. Fortunately, the consumer did not fall for the trick and she reported the matter to www.BBBScamTracker.org.
Scams are also targeting businesses. Since many businesses have applied for loans or grants, the scammers are taking advantage of the lack of experience of businesses and staff with a new program to steal money from businesses by stating the business needs to pay an application fee, pay the taxes up front, or to gain access to the business’s bank information. Each business owner should inform his or her team about scams in this area and to always check with the business owner before taking any action. The Small Business Administration (SBA) is sharing information about scams and each business leader can share their information from the SBA site (www.SBA.gov/Document/Report-SBA-Programs-Scams-Fraud-Alerts) to educate their team.
Identity theft is a major problem in Florida every year and experts are worried that more consumers and businesses online will provide more opportunities for scammers. According to the Federal Trade Commission, in 2019, Florida had the 4th highest rate of identity theft of the 50 states (180 victims for every 100,000 residents). The National Cybersecurity Alliance provides great information to help people fight back against ID theft with tips for staying safe online at www.StaySafeOnline.org. In the unfortunate situation of having your ID stolen, there is also a great resource to help guide you through the process of managing this challenge. The Identity Theft Resource Center provides both guidance to avoid ID theft and how to get your financial life back. You can learn more about them at www.IDTheftCenter.org.
I hope you never need to use some of these resources, but encourage you to become more informed and confident. Education and good practices will help individuals avoid COVID-19 and those same tools help consumers and businesses make smart decisions and protect themselves and their businesses.
“Do you know the difference between education and experience? Education is when you read the fine print; experience is what you get when you don’t. ” ― Pete Seeger