Can a Specialist Help You Retire Richer?
Some advisers claim special retirement expertise. Sure.
By Walter Updegrave

(MONEY Magazine) – If you have a medical problem, you go to an M.D. Legal question? A J.D., or attorney, of course. So it makes sense if you need help with retirement planning to seek assistance from an expert in that area as well--say, a C.R.F.A. (certified retirement financial adviser) or C.S.A. (certified senior adviser)--right?

Well, before you turn over your money to someone with an impressive string of initials after his name, keep three more letters in mind: B.B.C.--better be careful.

As the number of seniors and aging baby boomers has mushroomed, so too has the number of advisers sporting credentials that imply special expertise in retirement issues. But, consumer advocates warn, the trend appears to be little more than a marketing ploy to cash in on the burgeoning assets in pre-retirees' and retirees' 401(k)s and IRAs. Indeed, state securities regulators have recently issued alerts warning investors about unscrupulous salespeople with misleading titles trying to sell inappropriate investments to older clients.

How can you be sure you're dealing with a credible adviser? Here are four ways to find help you can trust.

Know What the Title Means

Some designations connote special financial training, some are marketing gimmicks, and others lie in between.

The title "retirement specialist," for example, is a made-up label that has no backing from any industry group. The popular C.S.A. credential comes from a real organization, the Society of Certified Senior Advisors, but merely indicates that the "expert" studied how to communicate with (and market to) seniors. Earning the "certified retirement financial adviser" credential does involve financial training, but it's a self-study or four-day course and only requires passing a 100-question multiple-choice exam. (The group that grants the C.R.F.A. is owned by a firm that sells a seminar for marketing annuities to seniors, which doesn't inspire confidence either.)

Vet the Adviser

So forget the alphabet soup. Instead, focus on whether the person you're dealing with is qualified to give advice as opposed to merely push a product. The first step is to make sure the adviser is actually registered with your state securities department (nasaa.org) and has no complaints or disciplinary problems on his record. If the adviser isn't registered, he isn't necessarily a fraud. But he's probably only licensed to sell products like annuities, not to give planning or investment advice.

Avoid the Seminar Trap

You also need to be aware that bogus advisers often rope in victims by inviting them to a "free" retirement planning seminar, then selling them high-commission investments in private sessions later on. In fact, you're much better off finding an adviser the old-fashioned way: Get a referral from a trusted friend or colleague, or go to a respected industry group like the Financial Planning Association (fpanet.org) or the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (napfa.org). Then follow up by asking the adviser about his expertise in dealing with the particular financial issues retirees face. Among the topics to discuss: how best to create a portfolio that can generate the income you need without depleting your assets too quickly, and how to create an effective estate plan.

Give It the Sniff Test

Finally, keep asking yourself whether you're getting real guidance or a glorified sales pitch. If the focus seems to be less on creating a plan and more on shifting your portfolio into investments the adviser is peddling, just walk away. You've got to trust the person who's advising you on your life savings. And if you don't, it doesn't matter how many letters come after his name.

PROTECT YOURSELF

To avoid being scammed by an adviser using false or misleading credentials, take these steps.

1 CHECK THAT REP Make sure the adviser is registered with your state securities department (nasaa.org) and does not have a history of complaints.

2 STICK WITH REFERRALS Limit your search to advisers who've been recommended by a knowledgeable friend or colleague, or a respected financial group.

3 BE ON GUARD Beware of any adviser whose chief "advice" appears to be selling all or most of the investments you own and buying new ones from him.

Sign up for Updegrave's weekly e-mail newsletter at money.com/expert. E-mail him at longview@moneymail.com.

Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer LIBOR Warning: Neither BBA Enterprises Limited, nor the BBA LIBOR Contributor Banks, nor Reuters, can be held liable for any irregularity or inaccuracy of BBA LIBOR. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.
Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer LIBOR Warning: Neither BBA Enterprises Limited, nor the BBA LIBOR Contributor Banks, nor Reuters, can be held liable for any irregularity or inaccuracy of BBA LIBOR. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.