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Righting Wrong

If you cheat an old lady or advertise an air conditioner you don't have, watch out — this man and his team will track you down.


"I said 'fair don't count,' basically," Gallagher says. It was a tough thing to do, to tell the jeweler that he'd lose hundreds (what would be thousands, today) for his generosity. But tough calls are what Gallagher does best — and has been doing since that long-ago dispute over the ring.

For 20 years, as of April 19, Gallagher has led the Better Business Bureau of Central Virginia Inc., the venerable nonprofit organization that allies 4,000 companies, promotes business integrity and defends consumers' rights.

The 57-year-old's eyes sparkle as he talks about the bureau's latest investigations. Twenty years of pacifying irate customers, ferreting out shady enterprises and haggling over refunds have not wearied him at all; for a man with a self-confessed short attention span, profound Christian faith and an unwavering sense of wrong and right, it's the perfect job.

Gallagher, now a father of four and grandfather of four, stumbled into his lifelong career by accident. In 1969, the 23-year-old was fresh out of a tour of duty in Vietnam and searching for a job. He found one at the Philadelphia Better Business Bureau. His first assignment there was to peruse five city newspapers every day, looking for misleading ads. It's something he still does today, every morning while on the treadmill at the Capital Club gym.

He also handled complaints, trying to help callers who had been bilked out of their money. "I guess for the first three days, I was a regular Ralph Nader," he says. Then a woman called him with what seemed a routine tale of woe — she wanted to return an $80 dress, but the store wouldn't take it back. Gallagher leaped to defend her, only to find that the shop had a legitimate reason for refusing the refund. The store's buyer had seen the woman wearing the gown at a cocktail party.

That experience taught him the essentials: to always check facts, and "never to lead with your chin." Thirty-three years later, he keeps those principles close to heart. It's true that the facts underlying a customer-business conflict are rarely in dispute ("the car runs or it doesn't," he points out), but the solution is a little more difficult to figure out.

That's why the bureau's tools are arbitration and mediation, not the court system. Last year, the Central Virginia bureau took 120,000 calls. Staff handle every legitimate complaint by first contacting the accused party. That action alone is sufficient in 80 percent of cases, Gallagher says. For more complicated or serious issues, the bureau employs mediators, and usually a satisfactory settlement is reached.

It's a process of which Gallagher never tires. Even after two decades in Richmond, since coming from the Albuquerque BBB in 1982, he has no plans to leave his post. Well, maybe after his 70th birthday, on Feb. 11, 2015. (His lucky day, coincidentally — the date he had the job interview in Richmond, his wedding anniversary, and his first day at the Philadelphia BBB.)

This city is a great place to do business, he says, especially compared to Philadelphia and New Jersey, where he grew up. There, he says, "people really did lie, steal and cheat."

Of course, merchants do that everywhere, to varying degrees. What really makes Gallagher mad is scammers who prey on the vulnerable, especially the elderly. Elder-fraud prevention is one of the biggest BBB campaigns he's started in his 20 years. It began in 1994, he remembers, when he found out about an 80-year-old woman who wrote checks to suspicious organizations daily. She was lonely, her only companion an old flea-bitten dog, Gallagher says. "The only people who contacted her were the con men."

The bureau's investigation led the FBI to get involved. Eventually, 11 were sent to prison. Gallagher recalls the victim saying with a sad smile, "Well, I've lost a lot of money, haven't I." They never told her the total came to more than $400,000.

He understands why it was tough for her to say no, he says; he has audio tapes of scammers shouting and bullying victims over the phone. That's why he started the anti-elder-fraud campaign. Gallagher begs anyone considering a big purchase, a charitable donation, or a get-rich-quick scheme to call the bureau first.

The satisfaction of resolving disputes and catching the bad guys is the reason Gallagher's been with the bureau for so long. But the truth is, he doesn't have much time to get into the nitty-gritty side of operations anymore.

He spends his days fund-raising (the Richmond bureau's $1.5 million budget comes from member dues and contributions), overseeing employees and attending committee meetings. His ultimate goal is to make the BBB more visible in Richmond, most recently with a new series of TV commercials and billboards. He wants flags outside member businesses. He wants flyers on telephone poles challenging the scam artists' offers.

"He wants to be so many places all the time," says Page Ewell III, president of the Richmond Window Corporation and current chairman of the bureau's board. That's probably the toughest part of Gallagher's job, Ewell observes — trying to right every wrong in the business world with limited time, staff and funds. "It really, it disgusts him," Ewell says, "a lot of the things that happen all the time."

True, Gallagher says. "Some people who do bad things will succeed." But, he adds, "the vast majority of people do the right thing. Day in, day out." You've got to believe that, he says; otherwise, you can't do business.


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