Question: I’m bombarded with radio and TV ads from people who want to help me save for retirement, but when I look them up on the FINRA (Financial Industry Regulatory Authority) website, I discover they are not registered. Does that mean that they are not fiduciaries? My concern is mainly for my girlfriend, a retired nurse.
Ric: There are four possible reasons for an advisor not being found on the FINRA site:
1. He or she might be registered with the SEC instead. Go to sec.gov to find out, just as you did with finra.org.
2. He’s an insurance agent. Check with your state insurance commissioner’s office.
3. She’s a real estate agent. Ask the state regulator.
4. He’s a crook.
Every financial advisor must be registered with FINRA, the SEC, or his or her state. All insurance agents must be in good standing with state insurance regulators. Many advisors hold licenses with both FINRA and the SEC — and hold insurance licenses as well.
Someone who does none of the above is likely a crook. OK, that might be a little strong. Some folks sell financial products that don’t require licensing — such as gold and collectibles. But we often hear of unscrupulous people pretending to be advisors when they are actually operating Ponzi schemes or engaging in other illegal activities.
In short, buy investments from someone licensed with FINRA and/or the SEC. Buy insurance from someone holding a state insurance license. Buy real estate from licensed real estate agents. Check them all out with their respective regulators, and search the web for consumer comments about them. And be very careful when buying unlicensed or unregistered products — such as gold — where there are no regulations or licensing.
As for the fiduciary issue: At present, only Registered Investment Advisors registered with the SEC or their state securities commissioner are required to meet the fiduciary standard. FINRA-licensed stockbrokers and insurance agents are not required to act as fiduciaries. However, keep in mind that SEC registration does not imply a certain level of skill or training, so continue to do your due diligence.