The Ritz Carlton may be synonymous with service, but the Better Business Bureau gave the Boston branch of the luxury chain a failing grade.
"I was perplexed," said Erwin Schinnerl, general manager of the Ritz-Carlton on Boston Common. "To be rated an F is very severe."
Suzan Griffith, the owner of a Boston boutique called Sooki, was just as confused by the rating her small business received.
"A C-minus? Ha!," Griffith exclaimed, looking at her store's BBB profile on her computer. "Actually it's horrifying. It's hurting my business and it's just not fair."
The Better Business Bureau, one of the country's best known consumer watchdog groups, is being accused by some critics of running a "pay for play" scheme in which A plus ratings are awarded to those who pay membership fees, and F ratings used to punish those who don't.
In an investigation that aired on 20/20, ABC News chief investigative correspondent Brian Ross found that a fictitious company named after the terror group Hamas was able to win high ratings under the BBB's rating system, while other businesses, including parts of famed chef Wolfgang Puck's culinary empire, seemed to have been slapped with failing grades because they hadn't paid up.
ABC stations in a half-dozen different cities also conducted their own investigations of the BBB, and found a similar connection between membership fees and ratings in a grading system that Connecticut Attorney General and Senator-elect Richard Blumenthal has blasted as "potentially harmful and misleading" to consumers.
In Boston, John Atwater and the investigative team at WCVB-TV found that BBB ratings for local businesses varied greatly, and that companies with very few consumer complaints to the BBB still sometimes had low ratings. WCVB also found that after reporters raised questions about grades for specific areas businesses, the BBB raised those grades.
According to the BBB's on-line database, in the past three years the BBB received two complaints about the Ritz-Carlton, which received an F grade.
But the Colonnade Hotel, a luxury hotel in the city's Back Bay neighborhood, scored an A plus despite having one complaint. Unlike the Ritz, the Colonnade pays to be accredited, just like all other BBB members.
WCVB asked the BBB if accreditation always leads to a higher grade.
"Accreditation affects your grade," said Kevin Sanders, CEO of the BBB serving the Boston area. "It doesn't make you earn an A plus."
He added that the Ritz's grade plummeted because the hotel didn't respond to one of the two complaints and didn't give enough information to the BBB about the hotel.
Schinnerl told WCVB that he was unaware of the BBB's grade or the complaints until contacted by the station.
"A million customers served, two complaints, resulting in an F rating," he said. "Seems to be somewhat unusual to say the least."
But Sanders stood by the failing grade.
"Many academic studies show that one or two complaints is usually indicative of a much larger issue with a business," he said.
But WCVB found that BBB gave an A to Waltham, Massachusetts-based Care.com, Inc. -- an accredited member -- despite receiving 60 complaints about the company in the past three years.
Care.com told WCVB that it earned the A by responding to all complaints within one day.