Observer tops list of most-complained-about Charlotte businesses
Plus: State cracks down on online liquor sales; Myers Park man accused of running $7M Ponzi scheme; Davidson Class of '20 returns to graduate; Jif peanut butter recalled; Summer vacations in Raleigh?
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The Better Business Bureau says The Charlotte Observer, Carowinds in top 10 for complaints in last year; ‘lack of responsiveness’ cited
by Tony Mecia
The Charlotte Observer and Carowinds are among local businesses with the most customer complaints in the last year, according to data from the Better Business Bureau.
The Observer topped the list, with 167 complaints in the last year, as customers complained regularly to the BBB about receiving bills, and occasionally referrals to collection agencies, despite calling the paper repeatedly to report that their print newspapers weren’t arriving. Carowinds was No. 9 on the list, with 62 complaints in the last year — many having to do with park operations and refunds during Covid. Other local companies on the list include a now-defunct law office, a carpet supply company and a gun dealer.
Here’s the list from the BBB:
The Ledger asked the Better Business Bureau for a list of local businesses with the most BBB complaints. The list the BBB provided does not include national companies, like Charlotte-based banks and out-of-state-based cable TV operators, and sorting by the number of complaints doesn’t factor in the companies’ size or number of customers.
But Tom Bartholomy, president and CEO of Better Business Bureau of the Southern Piedmont and Western North Carolina, says that being aware of companies that are sources of frequent complaints can help consumers make decisions. The BBB gives letter grades to companies based on their responsiveness to consumers: The Observer earned a “B-” and Carowinds earned an “F,” he says, and both lost their BBB accreditations in the last few years because of rising numbers of complaints.
“The worst ratings we have given to a company, they have earned it for lack of responsiveness,” Bartholomy says. “If you choose to still want to do business with the company, then be prepared. It’s not just one consumer who had an issue. It’s multiple consumers with multiple complaints. We can’t say ‘Don’t do business with that company.’ But pay attention to what other customers’ experiences have been, and use that as a leading indicator when you are choosing to do business with someone.”
Asked specifically about the ratings for The Observer and Carowinds, Bartholomy said: “What’s driving the Carowinds and The Charlotte Observer [ratings] is just their lack of responsiveness to customer complaints. What’s driving their ratings down isn’t the number of complaints that they have generated, though that has increased dramatically over the last couple years. It’s that they are either ignoring the complaints or not working diligently to get those complaints resolved.”
The Ledger reached out twice by email last week to Observer executive editor Rana Cash regarding the paper’s response to customer complaints. She did not reply.
A Carowinds spokeswoman told The Ledger in a statement:
Carowinds is committed to providing fun, immersive experiences to more than one million guests who visit our park each year. We stand by Carowinds’ mission to make people happy, and our Guest Experience Team works directly with guests to address any issues and respond to their concerns.
Outsourcing increases, and so do complaints
Delivering tens of thousands of newspapers across a city in the wee hours of the morning has always posed a logistical challenge for metropolitan papers, and that is probably especially true now, given the well-documented labor shortage. Still, complaints about The Observer’s delivery and billing have increased sharply even as its print circulation has dropped by about 75% since 2006, to about 54,000 as of last year, according to figures The Observer’s parent company provided to the digital magazine The Assembly.
Bartholomy said BBB complaints about The Observer started rising shortly after Ann Caulkins stepped down as the newspaper’s publisher in 2018. He said he’s no expert in The Observer’s business but that the rise in complaints seems to coincide with staff reductions and outsourcing: “They have downsized dramatically, and they have outsourced a lot of what they used to have direct control over.”
The Observer also has a one-star rating on Yelp, out of a possible five stars, based on 133 reviews — most sharing similar stories of billing mix-ups, delivery snafus and customer-service frustrations.
Critiquing other companies: Observer journalists routinely cite BBB data in their news stories and quote Bartholomy as an authoritative source on companies that engage in scams. The Observer also weighs in on the business practices of other companies, including an article Sunday that described a landlord who raised rents in Wesley Heights as “really shady” and a 2019 staff-written editorial that declared that “Wells Fargo has become an embarrassment” and characterized the bank as “a company perpetually on the lookout for new ways, legal or not, to empty the pockets of people who trusted it with their money.”
The paper used to routinely publish the BBB’s list of local companies with high numbers of complaints, but the last such story in the Observer’s archives is from 2018. At the time, the paper said that the “BBB’s 5 worst companies in the Charlotte area” were a moving company, a carpet cleaner, an appliance service company, a cabinet maker and a deck and porch designer. At the Observer, like at most newspapers, reporters and editors have little to do with circulation, billing and customer service.
‘Reverse redlining’: Other business practices by The Observer’s parent company, The McClatchy Co., have come under fire in recent years. An investigation in 2018 revealed that the business engages in what one critic called “reverse redlining”: using sophisticated algorithms to charge customers different subscription prices based on where they live or other data. Other McClatchy newspapers also fare poorly in the eyes of the BBB: Raleigh’s News & Observer has a “D” rating, and The State in Columbia has an “F,” with the same kinds of complaints.
In response to complaints that are posted online, The Observer often replies with this language:
We are very sorry for the delivery issue. This is not the kind of service you deserve, and we will double our efforts to improve the delivery service in your area. We are committed to providing world-class service, and we apologize that we recently fell short of your expectations.
Carowinds and others on the list
Many of the complaints about Carowinds seem to stem from Covid-related changes to operations and requests for refunds that didn’t materialize.
Last month, season ticket holders sued Carowinds’ parent company, Cedar Fair, after the company’s parks were closed for much of 2020 because of Covid. The company said it did not need to issue refunds because it was clear all sales were final.
Carowinds has a three-star rating on Yelp, out of a possible five, based on 535 reviews.
The Ledger attempted to contact the eight other Charlotte-area companies on the BBB list: Carolina Legal Services, Quantum 3 Media, TTI Floor Care North America, The Veretta Group, Global Moving, Paragon Revenue Group, Turner Armament Co. and Family Wellness Data Center.
Almost all did not reply or could not be reached.
The one exception: The Veretta Group, a luxury vacation rental company that also holds Great Gatsby-themed events. The BBB complaints stem from the Covid-related cancellation of the company’s annual Gatsby party.
In an email to The Ledger, CEO Jason Lottmann said:
All was fine for us until Covid wrecked our annual Gatsby Party (at Biltmore) just 10 days prior to opening night. We had four sold out events there for late March and early April in 2020, and were forced to postpone the event time and time again during Covid, due to governor mandates, etc., not allowing our event to go on. While we were able to recoup some of the money we had sent out to vendors, we weren't able to recoup everything and lost a good bit of money — ultimately having to refund people from other sources of our business. …
We’ve refunded over $700,000 in tickets and counting. We look forward to finishing off any other refund requests from it soon and finally closing the chapter on that Covid debacle. … Definitely a wart on our resume, but we’re getting through it.
What is the BBB? The Better Business Bureau of the Southern Piedmont and Western North Carolina, with 28 employees, is a private company that offers businesses that meet its criteria a seal of approval, which costs between $400 and $5,000, depending on the size of the business. There are 6,600 accredited businesses in the Charlotte area and Western North Carolina.
➡️ Read for yourself:
Charlotte Observer Better Business Bureau complaints and responses
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ALE agents conduct sting of online liquor retailers; rum and bourbon delivered to ALE offices
The state ABC Commission is cracking down on out-of-state online retailers that ship liquor into North Carolina.
This month, the board sent cease and desist letters to at least four businesses after state Alcohol Law Enforcement agents conducted stings — by going online and ordering shipments of rum and bourbon to be delivered to ALE offices in Raleigh, Harrisburg and Jacksonville. Under state law, it’s illegal to ship liquor to North Carolina consumers.
The sternly worded letters were sent to companies doing business under the names Caskers of New York, Sip Whisky and The Barrel Tap of California and Frootbat of Delaware.
BUSTED: ALE agents posing as state residents who want to order alcohol online and drink it ordered bottles to ALE offices earlier this year. The haul included (left to right): Bacardi Carta Negra Superior Black Rum from Frootbat ($35 including shipping, to Raleigh); Yellowstone Select Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey from The Barrel Tap ($72, to Harrisburg); Angel’s Envy Kentucky Straight Bourbon from Caskers ($70, to Jacksonville); and Willet Pot Still Reserve from Sip Whiskey ($81, to Harrisburg).
The Ledger reported in December (🔒) that some local drinkers, frustrated with shortages at Mecklenburg ABC stores, were turning to online orders to obtain bourbon, gin, tequila and other spirits. They assumed the practice was legal because the liquor always arrived, but state officials told The Ledger it’s against the law. The article quoted “Frank,” a 39-year-old Charlotte business owner, who told us: “If you’re planning ahead, it is a really great option.”
But Frank’s days of ordering liquor through the mail might be over, because the state’s crackdown appears to have worked: a $70 bottle of Casamigos Mezcal tequila that The Ledger reported was available for shipment to North Carolina in December is now no longer available, and Caskers says on its website that it does not ship anything to North Carolina. In December, Caskers listed more than 1,000 brands available to N.C. residents.
Coincidentally or not, the ALE investigation into the online liquor retailers appears to have started six days after The Ledger published the article on the trend, according to ALE records. It originated from ALE Assistant Special Agent in Charge Matthew Stemple, who discerning readers of our alcohol enforcement coverage might recall was involved in investigations into alcohol marketing of the NoDa Brewing-sponsored “Brew Dash 6K” at the Whitewater Center, in which he threatened to haul the center’s director to jail; and Unknown Brewing’s improper label featuring the state labor commissioner’s face on a beer called “Elevator Lady.”
On Dec. 21, 2021, an ALE agent in Jacksonville, N.C., went to the Caskers website to start an investigation, documents show:
I placed an order with CASKERS to see if the company would send a direct shipment of spirituous liquor to an address in North Carolina. Using an undercover email address and undercover funds, I picked from various types of spirituous liquor what was to be sent to me. I chose a 750-milliliter bottle of Angel’s Envy Kentucky Straight Bourbon spirituous liquor. I had the shipment sent to NC ALE District I office.
Then, the following week, a package arrived:
On Wednesday, December 29, the shipment of liquor was delivered to the NC ALE District I office. I received the package from UPS. Upon receipt of the package, the UPS driver asked me for my name. At no time was I asked to present an ID or for age verification. … I photographed the label and each side of the box. Located inside the package was a bottle of the alcoholic beverage I had ordered, Angel’s Envy spirituous liquor.
The agent then placed the package in “an approved evidence storage.”
News of the cease and desist letters was first reported this month by the N.C. Tribune.
Protecting children: The N.C. Beer & Wine Wholesalers Association put out a news release on the online liquor crackdown, quoting their chairman saying: “The illegal sale and shipment of liquor into North Carolina is an end-around of the payment of N.C. taxes while potentially opening the door for underage sales and endangering product safety.”
Mecklenburg availability: Meanwhile, Mecklenburg’s ABC board says supplies at stores are continuing to increase. There are about 1,500 items on average in county liquor stores — 33% more than in December, but still about 12% below pre-pandemic levels. “We will continue to work with our partners to ensure product is available to our customers,” a board spokeswoman told The Ledger.
➡️ Listen for yourself: Why “Frank” turned to ordering liquor online — and how he did it (voice altered so he could speak freely)
SEC accuses Myers Park man of running Ponzi scheme; donor to Mint Museum, Country Day
The Securities and Exchange Commission has filed a civil complaint against a 51-year-old Myers Park man, accusing him of forging documents and deceiving friends into investing money with him — and then using the money on vacations and education expenses for his children.
The SEC calls it a Ponzi scheme that collected $7M from at least 75 investors, mostly from the Charlotte area.
In an 18-page complaint filed Thursday, the SEC accuses Wynn Charlebois of promising investors big returns and showing them agreements from companies to buy back stock at predetermined prices. Charlebois, the SEC says, would tell the investors — at least some of whom were longtime friends — that he had options to buy the shares at a lower price, which would mean a guaranteed return. But in fact, the SEC says, the agreements with the companies were fake, and Charlebois didn’t use the infusions of cash to buy stock. Instead, he used them on ski trips to Vail and to Florida and co-mingled his personal and business accounts, court documents say.
Online records seem to show he and his wife were donors to the Mint Museum and to Charlotte Country Day School. He and his wife are listed as the owners of a house in Myers Park valued at $1.2M.
In court documents, one of the investors, Hall Johnston of Charlotte, says he gave $50,000 to Charlebois in January 2022 because Charlebois promised to buy shares in Spartan Race, a company that organizes obstacle races, at a discounted price, and that he would return the principal with a $15,000 gain at the end of February. But the money never came, and Johnston instead received excuse after excuse.
“From February through April 2022, I contacted Mr. Charlebois on multiple occasions via telephone, text and e-mail, to inquire into the return of my guaranteed investment and promised gain,” Johnston wrote. “Mr. Charlebois provided me with a myriad of what I now know were false assurances in an effort to string me along.”
Another investor, Wynn Davis of Charlotte, said in court records that he invested $50,000 with Charlebois in what he thought was discounted Spartan Race stock, plus an additional $150,000 in what he thought was stock in Atmos Air, a Connecticut company that develops air purification technology. He says he was promised a $60,000 gain but never got his money back.
Charlebois also has more than $500,000 in judgments against him from recent lawsuits he did not contest, the SEC says.
Charlebois told The Charlotte Observer on Friday: “This is a serious litigation matter that I look forward to resolving. Until then, no parties will be served well by discussing it at this time.” —TM
➡️ Read for yourself: The SEC case
For Davidson’s Class of 2020, pomp and circumstance — at last
One of The Ledger’s more moving articles toward the start of the Covid shutdowns two years ago was one written by a Davidson senior, Ariana Howard, who described her frantic final days at Davidson College.
She wrote about receiving the email from Davidson’s president announcing that the college was shutting — followed by a flurry of text messages and rushed and tearful goodbyes — and the sorrow of missing many senior traditions, including graduation.
At the time, in March 2020, she wrote:
No matter how much perspective we have on the devastating and lethal impacts the coronavirus has on our communities, the disappointment of ending college early and leaving all of our friends so abruptly will continue to persist. It’s not life or death. But it still warrants a period to mourn.
Today, she lives in New York City, writes and edits for an online psychology website and has started a master’s program at Columbia University in counseling psychology. This weekend, Ari and the rest of the Davidson Class of 2020 returned to campus for a proper graduation ceremony on Sunday. We asked her to share what the weekend meant to her. She wrote:
Being back at Davidson felt comfortingly familiar. But we one twist: Social groups were much less rigid. I woke up Saturday morning and went to the cafeteria. There I sat with 15 other women, a mix of my best friends from college and some girls I had never spoken to during my years at Davidson.
“This is how I hoped it would be! Everyone together,” one of the girls remarked at breakfast.
I thought: Why did we feel so much more comfortable integrating different friend groups together two years later?
“I guess we all have Davidson in common now,” I replied after a couple moments.
They all smiled and agreed. They knew exactly what I meant.
Jif peanut butter recall: Some jars of Jif peanut butter are being recalled after being linked to a salmonella outbreak that has sickened people in 12 states, including North Carolina. (USA Today)
Low unemployment: North Carolina’s unemployment rate fell to 3.4% in April, the lowest level since 1999. (Associated Press)
N.C. comes up short on auto plant: Hyundai Motor Group picked Savannah, Ga., for an electric vehicle plant, bypassing a site west of Raleigh. The plant will create 8,100 jobs. (WSOC/Biz Journal)
Have fun visiting Raleigh: In case you need more proof that ranked lists by random companies are totally bogus and a free-publicity ploy, WalletHub last week ranked the “Raleigh-Cary Metro Area” as the #13 “Best Summer Travel Destination,” one notch below Charleston. Charlotte was #50. The list was compiled by a WalletHub “financial writer” who “enjoys playing tabletop and video games with friends, consuming British and Japanese media and finding the best places for pizza.”
CROSSWORD SOLUTION: You can view the solution to Saturday’s crossword on The Ledger’s crosswords page.
Unless you are a day trader, checking your stocks daily is unhealthy. So how about weekly? How local stocks of note fared last week (through Friday’s close), and year to date:
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Executive editor: Tony Mecia; Managing editor: Cristina Bolling; Contributing editor: Tim Whitmire, CXN Advisory; Contributing photographer/videographer: Kevin Young, The 5 and 2 Project