Personal Finance

As SEC charges first brokerage to run afoul of new investor protection rule, here's how to find a good financial advisor

Key Points
  • It may seem daunting to find a good and trustworthy financial advisor or broker.
  • There are steps consumers seeking investment advice can take to protect themselves.
Thomas Barwick

Finding a broker or financial advisor you can trust may, at times, seem a daunting task.

That's especially true when investors see sensational stories of brokers fleeing the police in an underwater getaway or faking their death in an airplane crash. Then there are the high-profile fraudsters such as Bernie Madoff, who masterminded the nation's biggest investment fraud in history — a Ponzi scheme that cost tens of thousands of investors up to $65 billion.

And there are, of course, less sensational but still notable events. The Securities and Exchange Commission charged a brokerage — Western International Securities Inc. — and five of its brokers on Thursday with violating a new rule that aims to raise investment-advice protections for consumers.  

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The brokers allegedly sold more than $13 million of high-risk, unrated bonds to retirees and others, despite the bonds being inappropriate for these investors due to their illiquidity and speculation, according to the SEC release. The brokerage didn't respond to a request for comment.

It's the first time the SEC has filed a lawsuit in connection with Regulation Best Interest, which the federal agency issued in 2019 and firms had to comply with by June 2020. Overall, the rule generally requires brokers and firms to put a client's interests ahead of their financial or other interests when making an investment recommendation. They must share some of the logic behind a recommendation and disclose conflicts of interest.

There were 690,000 registered brokers and financial advisors in 2021, according to the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, or FINRA. Here are some tips for consumers to find one they can trust.

Heed red flags in regulator databases, online searches

Oliver Rossi

There are some surefire warning signs that an advisor you're considering may not be a good pick. 

Financial regulators have online databases consumers can reference for background information on specific individuals and firms. The SEC has one, the Investment Adviser Public Disclosure website, for financial advisors. FINRA's resource, BrokerCheck, lists brokers. (A person or firm may appear in both.)

First, check to see that the person appears in either system and that they are licensed or registered with a firm.

How to pick a financial advisor
How to pick a financial advisor

This means they have met a minimum level of credentials and background to work in the industry, according to Andrew Stoltmann, a Chicago-based attorney who represents consumers in fraud cases.

"If they're not, that's the uber-red flag," Stoltmann previously told CNBC. "If not, it could be some guy cold-calling from his mom's basement."

Prospective clients should also Google the advisor or broker's name to see if any news articles about past indiscretions or lawsuits appear. If so, it's another bad sign. The regulatory databases will also list any disclosures, complaints, arbitrations or settlements involving the individual.

Experts recommend checking for nefarious financial behavior such as sales abuse practices, unsuitable recommendations, and excessive or unauthorized trading.

Review account statements for other warning signs

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However, just because these warning signs aren't initially found doesn't mean consumers should let their guard down. There are other signals to watch for after deciding to trust an advisor with your money.

One of the lessons from Madoff's multibillion-dollar fraud was ensuring your money is being held at a reputable, third-party custodial firm such as Fidelity or Charles Schwab, Stoltmann said.

That makes it much harder for an advisor to steal money or take advantage of a client, since the assets aren't held in-house and clients aren't making checks out to the advisory firm, he said.

Think of this as a firewall like two-factor authentication — the custodial firm has certain procedures for withdrawing money, which often involve contact with the client, Stoltmann said.

The Great Inflation Squeeze
The Great Inflation Squeeze

Customers can check their regular account statements for this information.

Further, losing money isn't necessarily a red flag, especially if it occurs in a down market.

But it might be a bad sign if an investor's portfolio is tracking well below customary stock and bond benchmarks, according to George Friedman, an adjunct law professor at Fordham University and a former FINRA official.

"At some point you start asking questions," he told CNBC.

Hyper trading activity, as outlined in an investor statement, is another telltale sign. Such account churning generates fees and commissions for advisors but financially harms the client.

Proprietary investments — for example, owning a mutual fund run by your brokerage firm — aren't necessarily a fraud signal, but may be a sign that an advisor or firm is making money at your expense, Friedman said.

"I'd review account statements every month," he said. "If you see something funny or unusual, that's a flag."

Of course, investor statements could be doctored to hide such information.

Ask questions about investment recommendations

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Unsatisfactory or delayed responses to client questions should prompt clients to escalate their case to the firm's compliance department.

Being asked to communicate outside of an advisory firm's official channels, such as company email, is also a major red flag.

And, importantly, understand your investments; only place your money with reputable asset and fund managers, experts said. If you can't understand it, it's a bad sign, as is an investment that seems too good to be true.

Micah Hauptman, director of investor protection at the Consumer Federation of America, suggests asking a broker or advisor to verify in writing what they're recommending and why they didn't recommend a simpler, less costly option.

"If they can't give a simple, specific, clear, concise answer to 'Why this as opposed to anything else on market, based on product cost and quality,' then that could raise some red flags," Hauptman said.

Look for a fiduciary, fee-only advisor

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Brokers generally remain a lower-cost option relative to advisors for consumers who trade stocks and mutual funds infrequently and hold them for a long time.

Consumers who want ongoing, holistic advice and to reduce exposure to conflicts of interest as much as possible should seek out a fee-only financial advisor, according to consumer advocates.

They can search for such advisors in networks such as the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors, Garrett Planning Network, XY Planning Network and Alliance of Comprehensive Planners.

Such advisors must have a baseline competency such as the certified financial planner, or CFP, designation for financial planners and only receive flat fees for their hourly service, monthly subscriptions or fees based on the assets they manage for clients, Ron Rhoades, a CFP himself and director of the personal financial planning program at Western Kentucky University, told CNBC.

"This is the easiest way for a consumer to find somebody who is definitely on their side," Rhoades said.

Consumers should interview at least three different advisors after conducting a search to ensure the right fit, he said.