Many investors do not realize that the terms Financial Analyst, Financial Advisor, Financial Consultant, Financial Planner, Investment Consultant or Wealth Manager are simply generic terms or job titles commonly used by stockbrokers and investment advisors. Equally as troubling are the use of titles or designations, such as “Senior Specialist,” that are designed to gain the trust and confidence of elderly investors and retirees. The use of such designations is often little more than a marketing tool to attract business from the rapidly growing pool of investors who are 65 years or older.
Recently, our law firm filed a securities arbitration claim against a financial advisor who touted his qualification as a “Certified Senior Advisor” (CSA) and assured a group of elderly women who attended a free lunch seminar that his firm “worked exclusively with senior investors to protect their financial assets and standard of living.” Based on these assurances, they believed that their financial advisor had their best interests in mind when he recommended that they invest the bulk of their assets in a risky high-yield investment.
Our clients are now seeking damages through arbitration before the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA). The organization that granted the broker his CSA designation, cannot provide any direct assistance to these investors. Although the Society of Certified Senior Advisors (SCSA) has a mechanism for disciplining CSA designees who fail to adhere to their Code of Professional Responsibility, the SCSA’s primary method of discipline is to simply revoke the financial advisor’s CSA designation.
FINRA Oversight of Senior Designations
In November 2011, FINRA published a Regulatory Notice urging brokers to pay closer attention to the use of senior designations that imply an expertise or specialty in advising senior investors. According to a survey conducted by FINRA, 68% of firms allow the use of senior designations by their representatives. Of those firms that permit the use of senior designations, 66% require the approval and verification of the credentials, 23% require approval but do not verify credentials, and 11% do not require approval of the certification and do not verify the credentials.
There are a variety of senior designations in use by brokers including: Certified Senior Advisor (CSA), Certified Senior Consultant (CSC), Chartered Senior Financial Planner (CSFP), Chartered Advisor for Senior Living (CASL), Certified Retirement Planning Counselor (CRPC), Accredited Retirement Plan Consultant (ARPC) and Certified Retirement Services Professional (CRSP). FINRA is most concerned with those titles that have little, if any, meaningful qualification standards. California law also precludes broker-dealers and investment advsiors from using senior-specific credentials in the offer or sale of securities where such credentials are non-existent or where the organization does not have reasonable standards for ensuring competency of certified individuals. According to FINRA: “[i]nvestors are unlikely to differentiate between designations that represent an enhanced level of proficiency in dealing with financial matters relevant to senior investors versus a designation that is simply a marketing tool.” A brokerage firm that allows the use of any title that conveys expertise in advising for retirement or senior investors where such a specialty does not exist could be in violation of industry rules and also the anti-fraud provisions of the federal securities laws and FINRA rules.
There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch
A common tactic used by bogus “senior specialists” is the hard to resist free-meal seminar. Elderly investors should be particularly wary of salesmen who are pushing variable or indexed annuities. It is particularly important to make sure that the sales person is properly licensed. Before investing, all investors, especially seniors, should check out a broker’s disciplinary history using FINRA’s BrokerCheck service.