In my office I've prominently displayed a beautiful plaque, and it's easy to see why. It's an award bestowed by the Consumers' Research Council of America as one of the planners listed in the 2009 edition to the "Guide to America's Top Financial Planners."
Pretty impressive, right? Especially considering the name on the plaque isn't mine, but that of "Max Tailwager" (actually spelled "Tailwag'er"), my dachshund puppy. As you can see by the photo, he looks pretty proud of his award. Note how similar the emblem on the plaque is to the U.S. Presidential Seal.
How did my puppy end up on this plaque? Well, several months ago I received a nice announcement in the mail from SLD Industries, informing me I'd been named a recipient of this "prestigious award." It wasn't actually made out to me and in fact wasn't even sent to my current address.
My instinct was to throw the invitation away, figuring it to be one of those "to whom it may concern" awards available to anyone willing to pay for a plaque. Which caused me to wonder, does it really need to be a person? So I sent in the form, but named my prized puppy as the recipient. Since Max doesn't have a credit card -- credit markets have now tightened -- I gave them my name and credit card number. A couple of weeks pass and, voila, Max is proudly displaying his new honor.
Though Max isn't listed in the Council's rudimentary search engine, he should be, and here's why:
- In 2008, Max made $99.3 billion more than the combined brilliant financial minds at AIG.
- In March of this year, when top financial planners on CNBC's "On The Money" were telling viewers that "cash is king," Max wasn't advising any investors to get out of the market. Those who listened to the other planners missed out on a 35 percent stock market gain.
- He never charges his clients exorbitant fees. In fact, his services can be retained for the paltry sum of a single milk bone.
- The Council's Washington, D.C., address is a rented mailbox in a UPS store.
- It's not listed among nonprofit organizations tracked by federal regulators and the IRS.
- An SLD representative first registered the Council's Web site a decade ago.
A bit funny but mostly sad
Financial planners, peddling an award that is offered without any legitimate selection process, are misleading the public. Yet there are other, far more subtle, ways financial planners try to win your trust.
For example, a few months ago, I received notification that I was a finalist to be on a special segment of video from "The Today Show" that would run on United Airlines flights. When I asked if this was a paid advertisement, they replied, "No, but there's a filming fee of $29,500."
There were also the radio stations, and even one TV station, that approached me with the flattering offer of becoming their official financial planner. The only catch -- you guessed it -- was that I had to pay them for the privilege. Is the business talk radio show you are listening to really a paid advertisement?
Finally, there are more than a hundred financial credentials that can be obtained in a matter of a few days, or even a few hours, in Las Vegas. My personal favorite is the Certified Retirement Financial Advisor designation that's supposedly the second most respected financial designation by seniors. They also informed me of other related programs such as Seniorleads.com, where I could tout my new designation and troll for seniors who wanted to buy annuities.
No one cares more about your money than you. Check out the source of any credential or award before you hand over your nest egg. If it looks exaggerated, run and run fast.