How to avoid being ripped off by a financial advisor

financial advisor

It is alleged that Sydney-based financial advisor, Melissa Caddick stole $25 million from her clients. She has recently gone “missing”, leaving a trail of disaster for her clients and family members.

Many con artists are very cunning and go to great lengths to conceal their wrongdoings. But there are a few simple steps you can take which will virtually eliminate any chance of you being ripped off.

An advisor must be an independent intermediately, not a fund manager

Virtually all fraud committed by financial advisors occurs when the advisor is in control of the investments. That is, they are investing the money on behalf of their clients. This impairs their independence and allows them to manipulate information.

That is why you must demand absolute independence from any advisor you deal with. Your advisor’s job is to hire and/or fire fund managers (based on performance), not be a fund manager themselves. This allows the advisor to always represent your best interests. They are an intermediatory between you and the business investing your money, holding them accountable.

At ProSolution, we invest in a variety of managed investments and Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs). At any time, our clients can go directly to the fund managers or ETF providers website to check on the investments and performance. It is a very transparent arrangement. Transparency is the enemy to fraudsters.  

Make sure there’s good internal controls

It is acceptable to allow your financial advisor to make investments on your behalf. In fact, that’s what you are paying them to do. However, they should not have any ability to withdraw funds.

For example, we use an investment platform to invest our clients’ monies. We can invest any monies on the platform, but we cannot withdraw money from that platform. Only our clients are able to do that. This add another layer of protection.

A custodian should hold your assets  

All reputable investment platforms and fund managers use a custodian to hold all investment assets. A custodian protects the investor from counterparty risk. For example, if you use Macquarie investment platform and Macquarie goes bankrupt, your money is protected because it’s held on trust with its custodian. A custodian is an independent legal entity that holds assets on trust for its beneficiaries i.e. you.

ASIC and Google searches

The federal government’s Money Smart website allows you to search the financial advisor register. This will tell you a lot about an advisor. Most importantly, it will tell you if they are licensed and who with (i.e. who holds the Australian Financial Services license, “AFSL”). It will also tell what qualifications they hold, their experience, any disciplinary actions, professional memberships and training records.

Melissa Caddick never appeared on this register. So, a simple search conducted by any prospective client would have confirmed that she was not a licensed advisor.

Advisors must give you their AFSL number. It is wise to search this AFSL to ensure it’s a legitimate business – you can do that here. You might even contact the licensee to confirm that the advisor is in fact licensed by them. In the case of Melissa Caddick, she was quoting someone’s AFSL number without their knowledge or authority.  

Of course, a simple Google search is valuable to do also.

Recommendations speak volumes, but be careful of confirmation bias 

Of course, a recommendation from someone we trust typically provides us with a lot of comfort. After all, if the person recommending the advisor has had a good experience for many years, then that is good evidence.

However, a recommendation does not substitute all the other checks I have listed above. US conman, Bernie Madoff stole over $80 billion from his clients, many of whom were referred to him by existing investors. When we want something to be true, we refuse to see any signs to the contrary i.e. confirmation bias. Therefore, just because someone you trust has invested, does not mean you shouldn’t conduct your own checks.

Too good to be true

No one can control markets. Therefore, it is impossible to promise clients a certain investment return. All we can control is what we invest in (asset allocation) and the methodologies we use.

If someone promises to achieve a certain return, and that return is high, be sceptical. It is virtually impossible to achieve a high return without taking a high risk – the two come hand-in-hand.

A financial advisor must sit on your side of the table

There are two types of professionals that can help you invest – and the two must never be confused. The first one is an investment manager which includes stockbrokers, buyers’ agents, fund managers and so on. Because they only earn an income if you invest with them, they have a conflict of interest. That is, they have a commercial interest in you remaining a client of theirs. Whilst these professionals might be able to create a lot of value for their clients, they are not financial advisors.

A financial advisor sits on your side of the table[1]. They should not have any vested interest in what you invest in. That way they are completely independent, so they can analyse your investments without any fear or favour.

Three simple checks will protect your wealth

Of course, all the ideas I have shared above are important. But the top three are (1) searching the Money Smart financial advisor register (2) researching the AFSL holder and (3) ensuring your advisor is completely independent. These three things will ensure you will never be a victim of fraud.

[1] A friend, colleague and financial advisor, Matt Ross uses the term “sits on your side of the table” which I have borrowed on this occasion.