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Published: 7/11/2001

Information is your business

In this computer age Ohioans routinely are asked to provide businesses with the most intimate details of their personal lives. But trying to find even basic information about a business often is an exercise in frustration for the consumer.

As explained in a story by Blade business writer Gary Pakulski, access to business information becomes a matter of concern frequently in consumer affairs. What happened, for example, to the VCR that was taken in to be cleaned the other day?

Businesses of various sorts - appliance repair shops, home improvement firms, and the like - appear and disappear with regularity, sometimes taking with them customers' property. One of the first things the customer realizes upon finding a shop shuttered and out of business is that it is very difficult to find out who owns or runs the place and where that person can be found.

We could suggest that consumers patronize only large, well-established companies, but that would unfairly malign the scores of small, local crafts and repair people who often can provide reliable service for a fraction of the cost of the big guys. Far more preferable would be a change in state law requiring basic business information to be both a matter of public record and easily accessible.

Right now, it's neither.

If a business is a corporation, a check for its charter number can be made in the records of the Secretary of State in Columbus, via the Internet. Then a telephone call must be made to the state Department of Taxation, also in Columbus, which can supply the names of the corporation's officers. Not only is that information not available on the web, but a public information person was unaware that the department even provided the information.

If the business is not a corporation - for tax reasons, fewer are taking that step these days - the search for information is even more difficult. So-called “limited liability companies,” which are all the rage now, also must file with the Secretary of State, but the information they must provide is so sketchy as to be useless. Even the purpose for which the business is formed is labeled “optional” on the disclosure paperwork.

In a reflection of the power of the business lobby, state law has been written over the years to allow businesses to, in effect, hide behind layers of front groups, called statutory agents, which are businesses created to form other businesses. When it comes to finding the responsible party behind a business in Ohio, large or small, the paper trail is either a circuitous one or ends in a blank wall.

That's frustrating to people like Ed Mierzwinski, of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, who finds it ironic that businesses are secretive while, at the same time, they continue to build and use gigantic and voluminous databases on consumers' personal information, especially buying preferences.

“If a company is doing business in the public sphere, it is completely legitimate to know who is controlling the business,” Mr. Mierzwinski says. “When consumers have gotten bad service, they want to be able to write a letter of complaint to an officer of the company. They want to know if they are doing business with a local firm or a firm that is a front for a larger corporation or a foreign firm.”

Correcting this sad state of affairs won't be easy but it could be accomplished by legislators who truly have the public interest in mind in concert with responsible business leaders who realize they have nothing to lose, and a great deal of confidence to gain, in letting their customers know who they are.

Since they seem to know so much about us, it seems only fair.



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