Watch Out for the Claim: “America’s Top Financial Planners”

Today I’m going to tell you something to cross off your list of criteria when trying to choose a financial planner, physician, or lawyer: inclusion in one of the Consumer’s Research Council of America’s so-called guides.

I get solicitations all the time from organizations seeking to list me in their directories.  I’m old enough to know that 99.9% of these organizations exist purely to sell stuff, so I ignore them.  Just this week I was invited to be “profiled” in a listing of local advisers in a well-known financial magazine.  In fact, the “profile” is written in exchange for a hefty fee.

Allan Roth, a financial planner in Colorado, recently blogged about his experience in this regard.  He received a mailing containing an invitation to be named one of “America’s Top Financial Planners” by the Consumers’ Research Council of America.  He was also invited to buy a plaque announcing this “honor.” Roth, known for his iconoclastic tendencies, decided to see if he could get a plaque for his dog instead.  At Roth’s blog you can see a photo of his dachshund puppy, Max Tailwager, proudly displaying the plaque proclaiming him as one of American’s Top Financial Planners for 2009.

The name “Consumers’ Research Council of America” gives the impression that this is some sort of non-profit consumer-oriented organization.  But Roth did some research and found that the Washington, DC address for the Council is a rented mailbox in a UPS store.  Forbes magazine became interested and determined that criteria for inclusion in the council’s listings do not include such important factors as “disciplinary matters, lawsuits, arbitrations, judgments or settlements.” Forbes also did a spot check of the council’s “Top Planners.” Ninety percent of the planners listed by the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards in the Jacksonville, Florida area were also listed as top planners by the council!  Apparently the Consumers’ Research Council of America’s list isn’t very exclusive.

The Council and its marketing partner, SLD Industries Inc. are none too pleased by Roth’s inconvenient truth; they’ve threatened to file a complaint with the Colorado Division of Securities.  But the Colorado securities commissioner has only praise for Roth:  “I thank Mr. Roth for showing what some of these awards and designations are: Send us your money and we’ll send you the award,” [Commissioner Fred J.] Joseph told Forbes.

With a quick look around the blogosphere, I spotted this account by retired surgeon Sid Schwab of his inclusion in the Council’s “Guide to America’s Top Surgeons” – despite the fact that at the time, he’d not been actively practicing for almost five years.  Schwab commented: “Were I you, I’d take them off my list of possible doctor reference aids. Those plaques, however: some are quite attractive….”

The same advice applies to financial planners; if you encounter one touting his or her inclusion in the “Guide to America’s Top Financial Planners,” be aware that it’s meaningless.  Perhaps there are planners who actually believe that this is a legitimate honor, but I trust that most are not that gullible.

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Thomas Fisher, CFP®

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