Scott Eells/Bloomberg—Getty Images
By Megan Leonhardt
October 21, 2016

You’ve probably heard this advice before: Before handing your money over to a financial advisor, be sure to look up his or her record on the BrokerCheck tool to make sure there’s no history of client disputes or disciplinary measures.

But a new report is casting doubt on whether the tool offers anything more than “limited value” to investors.

The Public Investors Arbitration Bar Association (PIABA), a plaintiffs attorneys’ organization, released a study Thursday claiming that — despite the millions of dollars spent over the past two years revamping the site and raising public awareness — BrokerCheck still fails to give consumers a complete picture of any potential problems in a financial advisor’s history.

Currently, BrokerCheck — which is run by the industry’s self-regulatory body, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority — provides a public record on every registered broker. It includes employment history, exams passed and any so-called “disclosure events” — including instances where there are consumer complaints or the broker has been sanctioned.

According to an academic study released earlier this year, 7.3% of all brokers have some kind of misconduct on their record, whether a regulatory action, a settlement, or an award of financial damages to a harmed consumer.

But the attorney group argues FINRA is withholding other potentially relevant information — such as advisor terminations, bankruptcy filings, and tax liens, as well as the actual scores earned on industry licensing exams.

“FINRA cannot be allowed to continue to hype a broken system it knows is of limited utility,” says PIABA president Hugh Berkson, co-author of the study.

FINRA responded Thursday, saying that it welcomes input and constantly looks for ways to improve BrokerCheck. “A FINRA board working group is currently considering a number of these issues, developing recommendations for the full board to discuss, and will consider topics raised in PIABA’s report in their deliberations,” a spokeswoman said, although she declined to specify a timeline for the review.

Alternative Resources for Investors

So what should you do if you want to check out a financial advisor’s background?

BrokerCheck does provide basic overview information on all registered financial advisors, so it’s fine to start there.

Some state securities regulators also offer reports that provide a fuller picture of an advisor’s record, but the quality of these reports vary widely. PIABA has a list and contact information for the state agencies.

It’s also worth running a quick Internet search on any current or potential advisors, looking for old press releases or media mentions. Several state and federal agencies, such as the Massachusetts Securities Division, the U.S. Department of Justice, and several U.S. Attorneys issue press releases when they bring charges against an advisor. (Some advisors even appear on popular sites like Yelp and other directories. While the reviews listed may be subjective, they can at least provide some additional feedback.)

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