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2017-05-24 / Featured / News

BBB's Gallagher reflects on 35 years of scam busting

BY RICH GRISET STAFF WRITER


Thomas Gallagher, chief executive of the Central Virginia Better Business Bureau since 1982, is retiring at the end of this year. 
ASH DANIEL Thomas Gallagher, chief executive of the Central Virginia Better Business Bureau since 1982, is retiring at the end of this year. ASH DANIEL Entering the old woman’s home, Thomas Gallagher was surprised by the volume of glass dolphins, special recognition plaques, Frisbees and other knickknacks given to honor her donations to fraudulent charities over the years.

As CEO of the Central Virginia Better Business Bureau, Gallagher was contacted by the woman’s bank in the early 1990s. The bank had noticed an unusual pattern: the woman was writing checks and then quickly canceling them.

Visiting her home near what is now Richmond International Raceway with a colleague, Gallagher soon figured out that the woman was the victim of multiple scams, including one from a group of contractors.

After gaining her trust, the contractors would invent things that were wrong with her house, sometimes bringing in pieces of wood with termite damage to convince her that work needed to be done. Other times, they would charge her exorbitant sums for minor home repairs.

To see how badly she’d been bilked – and to test how trusting she was of strangers – Gallagher asked to see her checkbook. The woman quickly provided it.

“That’s when I knew we had a problem, because she couldn’t say no to anyone,” Gallagher says. “This woman was just being tagged.”

The checkbook told the tale of roughly $9,000 that had been swindled away from her in drips and drabs over six months. Soon, the FBI and other governmental agencies got involved, uncovering a contractor scamming ring and sending 11 people to prison. That scam is just one of many ferreted out over the years by Gallagher and his team at the Better Business Bureau, a consumer protection nonprofit founded in 1912. Gallagher has announced that he is retiring from the BBB later this year.

It’s the end of an era for Gallagher, who got his start with the BBB at its Philadelphia bureau in 1969. A native of South Jersey, Gallagher came to work for the BBB after serving with the Air Force in Vietnam. After five years, Gallagher decided to try his hand at public relations and marketing, but soon returned to the BBB, eventually becoming the chief executive of the New Mexico bureau.

But for the past 35 years, Gallagher has served out of the Central Virginia BBB office, which is now located at Moorefield Park in Chesterfield. In his time with the nonprofit he’s seen tremendous changes in how people conduct business.

“We used to handle everything on the phone and in writing,” Gallagher says. “If a consumer wanted to find out about a company before they did business, they would call us.”

When Gallagher started, the Central Virginia office might field 40,000 to 50,000 consumer inquiries annually. That figure climbed to about 100,000 a year when the bureau adopted an automated voice response system. In the internet age, the office fields roughly one million queries a year.

Though the numbers are up, Gallagher says personal contact is down, and he doesn’t always see the trade as a positive. Without meeting the old woman at her house, for instance, Gallagher says he wouldn’t have known she was being scammed.

“All of these [changes] are great, great benefits, [but] I miss the individual contact, because that’s when you hear what’s going on in the streets. That’s when you can hear about scams,” he says.

Similarly, Gallagher sees the rise of ecommerce as having both upsides and downsides. With Amazon and other online retailers, the consumer experience is carefully monitored to ensure customer satisfaction.

“Some of these companies are so customer-centric,” Gallagher says. “They’re just great examples of what we want as consumers to be able to do.”

That said, buying goods and services from unknown parties through the internet can be dangerous.

“You don’t have any idea who the company is in many cases,” he says. “It’s just a recipe for trouble.”

For nationwide companies, the BBB often has one branch that handles all consumer complaints. Because of this, Gallagher’s office handles all nationwide complaints for Carmax and all worldwide complaints for Capital One.

“Fortunately, these are both great companies,” Gallagher says.

Though he’s retiring, Gallagher plans to remain active, saying he may teach and work with charities, including the Cameron K. Gallagher Foundation. The foundation works to cultivate awareness and understanding of teenage mental illness, and was named for Gallagher’s granddaughter who died suddenly of an undiagnosed heart condition after running a half marathon.

Looking back on his nearly five decades with the BBB, Gallagher says he wouldn’t change a thing.

“I’ve had a ball,” Gallagher says. “I’m the most blessed guy on the face of the earth.

“If I had to do it all again, I’d do it exactly the same way.” ¦

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