Updated: Oct 15, 2020
I got this article in my mobile feed today and that's when it occurred to me: "Fiduciary duty is like a restraining order. It's not a guarantee of performance. It's not a guarantee of character. It only tells you who you can blame and at what level of charges you can levy against them."
Here is the article: CNBC: How to find a financial advisor who won't make your money disappear
Now, do I have any real advice on how to avoid being ripped off? I guess I have some ideas.
1. If it's too good to be true, and CANNOT be substantiated... it probably is too good to be true.
2. For insurance agents, you can look up their licensing for your state.
3. For registered reps, you can look up their record on FINRA's BrokerCheck.
4. For Registered Investment Advisors / Investment Advisor Representatives, there is the IAPD website.
5. Licensing (any licensing) isn't a test of competence, but a test of being held liable for their actions and recommendations by various regulators. If someone is only touting their licensing... it's not that hard to pass. (By the way, California allows one to FAIL the insurance license exam up to 10 times before they have to wait 12 months to take it again! Doesn't necessarily inspire a lot of confidence in me.)
6. Designations are nice. However, I know some GREAT advisors who don't have any designations. And I've heard stories about other advisors who have world-class designations and they have serious issues. Designations are not a test of ethics, but ideally, a test of competency. Yes, designation organizations can revoke their certifications... but otherwise are NOT an enforcement organization. The CFP Board of Standards has as much enforcement authority as the Better Business Bureau (which is none - except the rights to display their "marks").
7. Association memberships are nice, but again, not a test of ethical standards. The worst they can do is revoke membership.
8. Beware of Affinity Fraud: And we have to beware of anyone who says, "Trust me, I'm a ______." I'm always leery of such people, because they are doing a kind of "cover-up" on the details and trying to use affiliations, religious faith, or whatever in order to induce a purchase. Whenever I've met with someone from my faith or other association, I always made it a point to say something like, "I appreciate your trust, but I want to bring this up. This is business. I only want your business if it makes sense, it feels right to you, and you understand it. It's not about me. I don't want you making any decisions 'for me', but only if it's something you want to do. If it doesn't fit... let's not do it. I hope that's okay?"
There is NO proven test for integrity, honesty, morality, etc. But I believe that we know it when we see it. At the same time... crooks fake it too. I don't have any real advice that will guarantee that someone won't be taken. I wish I did.
I think the biggest thing to look out for, is who to make the check out to... and to make sure you have online access directly with the institution to whatever account or policy it is, and that the check was properly endorsed by the receiving institution.
Now, that won't protect you from a Ponzi scheme, but it can protect you from someone stealing your funds and pocketing them for themselves and generating false statements alluding that you actually have your policy or account, and you really don't.
Just remember: Bernie Madoff... was a "fiduciary". At least we knew who to blame and who to sue to try to get your money back. At least you can sue them as a "fiduciary" or for "best interest standard".