How to Spot the Lies Financial Advisers Tell

A study finds that lawyers who oversee financial firms often receive financial benefits from those very firms. Reuters

When it comes to getting advice—especially financial advice—truth can be such a relative thing.

If you're an individual investor, you probably know exactly what I mean. And the federal government isn't exactly helping. The administration just killed a fiduciary rule that would have required commission-based brokers and insurance agents to disclose conflicts of interest and compelled them to recommend the lowest-cost retirement plans to clients. Those rules were set to be phased in this spring, but it looks as if they've been tossed into the recycler.

Bad timing. The latest Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards survey suggests 60 percent of investors feel advisers put their companies' interests first, while only 12 percent think they put the clients' interests first. And 63 percent believe the current laws don't protect consumers from those who would take advantage of them.

Or, to put it less delicately, a lot of financial advisers lie. But how?

No fees!

"When an adviser says there is no commission involved you should be leery," says Brent Wilsey, who runs the San Diego-based Wilsey Asset Management. "As much as you may hope, most likely they are not going to do their job for free." Instead, companies build a façade that makes it look like your investment is fee-free. "But in reality, they hide the fees by burying them deep into documents," he adds. In other words: There's no such thing as "free."

Trust me, I have a title

"That is perhaps the biggest lie," says Warren Ward, a Columbus, Ind.-based financial advisor. There's so much title confusion in the industry, and it's a confusion that unscrupulous advisers often take advantage of. "They are apparently free to call themselves pretty much anything: advisor, counselor, wealth manager," he adds. Ward is a Certified Financial Planner, a significant designation requiring the completion of multiple college courses and passing a two-day exam, but the law allows his less studied colleagues to call themselves anything. And, in an industry that's already confusing, that's enough to fool some investors.

Look at these returns!

Funny math is common among some financial advisers. Some advisers overstate compound interest, for example. "It's a prevalent, egregious lie that never gets challenged," says Jordan Wolff, the chief savings officer for Shrinkabill Services, a financial services firm. The equation is something like this: "If you invest $A over the course of B years you will earn $C because the average rate of return of this fund (or market) is D%" But wait. "The problem with this equation is that no one can score that rate of return every year," says Wolff. The math treats this as a consistent earning every year. And that's not accurate.

Did we forget to mention that?

Few advisers will tell you an outright lie, says Kevin O'Brien, president of Peak Financial Services. "Lies of omission are probably more common," he adds. How so? Many terms and fees are buried in difficult-to-read prospectuses, and you may not be able to decipher the true costs of some investments. "Because of this non-transparency, advisers may not be forthcoming, unless clients specifically ask about the costs and how the investment is priced out," he adds. Remember, registered investment advisers and investment adviser representatives are required to act in a fiduciary role, while registered representatives may earn a commission.

This investment has no risk

There's no such thing as no risk, says financial adviser Ilene Davis. "While a bond or CD may guarantee return of principal, purchasing power loss is a risk not often discussed," she says. It's OK to refer to such investments as "low-risk," but to call them "no-risk" investments is a lie. If your adviser is telling you otherwise, you might want to look elsewhere.

It's do or die

Shady investment advisers love fear tactics. "If you don't act now, the situation will change and you won't succeed," says Carol Fabbri, the managing partner of Fair Advisors, an independent financial advisory firm. "Your kids won't go to college. You'll eat cat food." Planning is not a drama or a reality television show, she says. It takes patience to succeed. Bad advisers push clients to make a decision because they are afraid of losing a sale, not because the market is going to change. If your adviser is scaring you, maybe you have the wrong adviser.

How to avoid this? By choosing the right adviser in the first place, says James Pollard, a marketing consultant for the website

"Interview multiple financial advisors," he says. "It's important to do this rather than just pick one, especially since some advisers might not mesh well with your goals or personality. Interviewing several financial advisers will give you a better perspective on the right fit for you."

Also, pay attention to how your financial adviser discusses and approaches risk. The best and most trustworthy financial advisers tend to be completely open about risk. If someone downplays risks, run for the hills.

Finally, do a background check on your adviser. A financial advisdr's Form ADV, the form used by an investment advisor to register with both the Securities and Exchange Commission and state securities authorities, will let you know of any problems. If you see anything suspicious, move on.

The federal government's latest actions may have given financial advisdrs a right to lie, but now you know how to prevent that from happening.

Consumer advocate Christopher Elliott's latest book is How To Be The World's Smartest Traveler (National Geographic). You can get real-time answers to any consumer question on his new forum,, or by emailing him at