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Make Sense of Financial Credentials

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Acronyms and other abbreviations are supposed to make long phrases easier to say and remember. But in the financial world, they can also make questionable credentials look all too legitimate. There are all sorts of folks out there who want to manage your money, some of them better qualified than others. Do your due diligence by finding out who's managing yours.

Four of the most well-respected designations you'll commonly encounter are CFP (certified financial planner), CFA (chartered financial analyst), CPA (certified public accountant), and PFS (personal financial specialist). These aren't the only financial designations, and new ones sprout up all the time, but they are among those that require a high level of knowledge and training. But with all of the designations and fancy titles out there, how do you size them up to see whether the people behind them are legit?

Here are some tips for identifying backgrounds that have been -- to put it kindly -- "surgically enhanced":

1. Investigate the credentialing body that sponsors the designation. Pop the name into your favorite search engine, and see what comes up: Is there a website that details the credentialing requirements? Is there a database where you can locate the names of members in good standing? A mere presence on the Web isn't an endorsement, of course, but the larger, more respected credentialing boards should have sites that detail all of the ins and outs of the credentials they offer, as well as contact information to handle any questions. You'll also want to ask about the requirements for the designation; the best credentials require several years of relevant work experience, adherence to a code of ethics, extensive education, and, often, an exam.

2. Investigate the individual. Hucksters will use bogus credentials to gain your confidence, and even properly credentialed financial professionals will sometimes have a less-than-stellar record that you should know about. To prevent wasting money on either type of individual:

  • Check with the credentialing authority to be certain the individual in question is in good standing.
  • Contact the Better Business Bureau to see whether any consumers have lodged complaints.
  • Use the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority's (FINRA's) tool, BrokerCheck, to see whether your financial professional has a disciplinary history.

3. Be wary of generic titles, advises FINRA. Anyone can use certain titles, such as "financial analyst," "financial advisor," "financial consultant," "financial planner," "investment consultant," or "wealth manager," without having any special expertise, training, or experience. Likewise, don't assume you're getting the best and brightest just because people use titles such as "vice president." Companies have been known to share the wealth when it comes to titles -- anything to help their salespeople sell.

For more on smart investing in tough times:

This article was originally published on Oct. 27, 2007. It has been updated.

Fool contributor Elizabeth Brokamp is a licensed professional counselor who regularly talks money with her honey, Robert Brokamp, editor of The Motley Fool's Rule Your Retirement newsletter service. The Fool has a disclosure policy.


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