LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — The Southern California chapter of the Better Business Bureau was forced to resign from the national organization after an internal investigation found higher ratings were awarded to businesses that paid for membership status, according to a statement released Tuesday.

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After nearly 80 years, the Business Consumer Alliance — formerly the Better Business Bureau of the Southland — will no longer be affiliated with the Better Business Bureau (BBB) and will move forward as an independent organization offering new services to a national audience.

The two-year investigation discovered business owners — including celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck — were part of a “pay-to-play” system in which they were told they had to pay in order to get an “A” grade.

BBB officials decided to launch the investigation after a blogger working with ABC News filled out an application for the terrorist organization Hamas, which briefly appeared on the local website as a BBB Accredited Business with an A+ rating.

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The expulsion strips Business Consumer Alliance of its right to use the BBB name and logo, along with support services provided by the Council of Better Business Bureaus (CBBB).

While operating as the BBB of the Southland, the organization became the most successful Bureau within the system, with 17,000 members, handling over 90,000 complaints and distributing over 14 million reports, which amounts to roughly 10 percent of the entire volume of transactions for the entire BBB system, according to the BBB.

BBB national communications director Katherine Hutt told KNX 1070 NEWSRADIO that ultimately the organization strives to maintain its credibility with the public.

“It’s very important that consumers, no matter where they are, no matter what kind of company they’re doing business with, can trust that the Better Business Bureau seal means the same thing wherever they are,” said Hutt.

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Local businesses that are currently BBB accredited can continue to use the BBB seal during the transition.