The financial industry has a big problem: Some of its “experts” aren’t real.
Last month, we reported that Patricia Russell, the owner of a personal finance website who claimed to be a certified financial planner and has been quoted across the internet, was a fake. Not only were her credentials fabricated, but so was her entire identity. To this day, we don’t know who “Patricia Russell” really is.
It was a wild discovery, one that almost seemed too ridiculous to be true. But as it turns out, she’s not the only person who used false credentials to trick the press into quoting her expertise.
Meet The EndThrive Team
In a classic “Hey, look over there” diversion, Russell at one point attempted to redirect my investigation into her identity by pointing out that another website seemed to be run by CFPs using pseudonyms, as she initially claimed to be doing.
The website in question was EndThrive.com, which sells budgeting spreadsheets and operates as part of an affiliate marketing network. Indeed, the site listed several experts with impressive credentials. For instance, the listed owner, Adele Alligood, claimed to be a certified financial planner and chartered financial consultant. And a few weeks after I exposed Russell and her existence was subsequently scrubbed from the web, Alligood reached out to me via email with a pitch.
Thanks to Russell’s earlier tip, I began to dig into Alligood’s background. And it was quickly evident that her expertise, and that of at least some members
of her team, was questionable.
For one, Alligood’s credentials seem to change depending on the subject of the article she’s quoted in. She’s identified on various websites as a financial adviser, an insurance agent, a credit expert and even a relationship expert. And in an article called “58 Characteristics of Highly Successful People,” a photo that’s associated with Alligood’s byline in a few other pieces is identified as Madison Eubanks instead. Eubanks is listed on EndThrive’s “About” page as a clinical psychiatrist and wellness contributor. However, in that particular article, she’s credited not as a clinical psychiatrist, but as EndThrive’s “content and engagement manager” (we’ll come back to Eubanks shortly).
The name Adele Alligood doesn’t exist in the official CFP Board database, which lists everyone who has at one point earned the certified financial planner designation. Of course, I brought this up to her. “I was previously registered, but currently am not,” she wrote. “You should be able to find my previous registration under my maiden name (Paris).” Hmmm. Russell had tried that excuse, too.
But there is no Adele Paris in the CFP Board database, either. The only evidence of a person with that name existing as a financial professional is one entry in the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority’s BrokerCheck database for an Adele Paris who was registered to sell securities for less than a year in 2010-2011. There’s no telling whether this is the same person as the Adele Alligood I had been in contact with. Either way, it doesn’t help Alligood’s case.
I asked Alligood why she listed CFP credentials on the EndThrive website and her LinkedIn page as if they were current. “CFP certifications are required for selling securities and investment products,” she responded. “Since I’m previously registered, I no longer refer to myself as a CFP. I will be updating the dates on my information.”
Aside from the fact that her excuse simply doesn’t make sense, the CFP certification is not, in fact, required to sell securities. That’s what various series licenses are for. And considering that EndThrive was founded in 2018, it’s not as if the page was outdated. Alligood intentionally called herself a CFP even though she already no longer was ― or possibly was never ― registered.
Shortly after this exchange, Alligood removed all mentions of being a CFP from her LinkedIn profile, and the “About” and “Contact” pages on EndThrive were deleted, including the individual bio and author pages belonging to the team members. However, they continued to exist for several days in Google’s cached history of the website, which gave us the opportunity to take screenshots.
Eubanks seems to be another troubling case. She’s also quoted in a number of publications, including Reader’s Digest. She also has a column on Thrive Global, founded by former HuffPost editor-in-chief Arianna Huffington. And interestingly, the URL for the column contains Alligood’s name, not Eubanks’.
According to Eubanks’ LinkedIn profile, she attended the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine from 2001 to 2006 and obtained a doctor of medicine degree before working as a psychiatrist. But a representative from the college told me that its first class of students enrolled in 2003 and graduated in 2007, so the dates Eubanks listed don’t match any possible class. The college awards a doctor of osteopathic medicine degree, not the M.D. Eubanks claims to have earned. In fact, the representative told me nobody by the name of Madison Eubanks was on file as having attended the school. I reached out to Eubanks for comment, but she didn’t respond. A few days later, she deleted all the information on her LinkedIn profile.
A section of her deleted bio on EndThrive.com, by contrast, claimed she earned a master’s degree in clinical psychiatry, an option that doesn’t exist in the U.S., because psychiatrists are physicians who first earn an M.D. or D.O. degree.
Another “expert” of potential concern featured on EndThrive is Steven Bennett, who claims to be a certified financial planner as well as a longtime employee of Wells Fargo, currently working as a senior budget analyst. His now-deleted bio page also stated that he’s an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s school of finance and serves on its Financial Advisory Council (not to be confused with George Mason University, where he claims to have obtained a bachelor’s degree).
As you might have guessed, there is no Steven Bennett in the CFP Board database. And a Wells Fargo human resources representative later confirmed that Bennett is not an employee of the bank. A representative of George Washington University said no one by this name is associated with the school. Bennett did not respond to my requests for comment about these discrepancies.
Clearly, these financial “experts” were able to dupe some reporters without much effort, and likely many members of the public who ran across EndThrive. There are probably many more people out there pulling similar stunts across a variety of industries.
Soon after the original Patricia Russell story, a few of my peers, bless their hearts, posed the question: If the information that was quoted was correct, does it really matter that Russell wasn’t who she said she was?
This line of thinking really misses the mark on why phony experts are such a problem. It’s not that the advice they’re providing is necessarily wrong ― most of the quotes that were published are on par with information you’d find with a simple Google search. It’s that they are attempting to bolster their expertise and garner trust that wouldn’t otherwise be given so easily. And to what end? If you do enough digging, it becomes clear that money is the motive.
“The fact that they’re engaging in these misrepresentations is a huge red flag.”- Leo Rydzewski, general council for the CFP Board
“People who are doing this have improper motivations,” said Leo Rydzewski, CFP Board’s general counsel. “The fact that they’re engaging in these misrepresentations is a huge red flag.”
The CFP designation, in particular, implies a high level of expertise and trustworthiness. To earn it, a person must have a bachelor’s degree or higher, complete additional rigorous coursework, pass a difficult exam, demonstrate financial planning expertise and adhere to strict ethical standards.
Most of the CFPs who put an effort into getting their names out in the media do so in order to promote their financial planning practices. But for a person to lean on their supposed CFP designation in order to hawk credit repair services (as in the case of Russell’s now-defunct website) or sell Amazon products shows they don’t take the mission of the organization seriously.
However, CFP is just one credential in a sea of acronyms you might come across in the search for financial advice, even if it’s legitimate. It’s a problem that the CFP Board’s director of communications, Dan Drummond, refers to as “designation proliferation.” There are more than 200 professional designations within the financial industry, according to FINRA, the industry’s self-regulating group. Many of those designations don’t mean a whole lot, Drummond said.
“That’s why our certification is one we give a lot of import to in terms of enforcement, because we try to distinguish ourselves from all the other certifications that are out there,” Drummond said.
How To Verify A Financial Expert’s Background
So, how can the average person find out if a financial planner, personal finance website owner or other financial professional is legit? Where you go looking will depend on the type of expertise they claim to possess.
Check the CFP Board database: For anyone who says they are a CFP, the CFP Board offers a “verify an individual’s CFP” tool that allows you to search by name to verify whether they’re certified. This database includes currently registered CFPs as well as those who were once registered and no longer are. It will also list any disciplinary history and bankruptcy disclosures.
Look them up in BrokerCheck: If the expert in question is licensed to sell securities such as stocks, bonds and mutual funds, you can search for them in FINRA’s BrokerCheck to get more information about their background.
Search the SEC: Not every adviser you come across will be found in FINRA’s database. About 275,000 are registered with the Securities Exchange Commission, which also provides a searchable database.
Check with the state: Smaller investment advisers who manage less than $25 million are registered on the state level rather than with the SEC. You can visit the North American Securities Administrators Association’s directory of local securities regulators to get their contact information.
Try DesignationCheck: The American College, an accredited nonprofit educational institution, also maintains a database of individuals who have earned certain financial designations. Search its DesignationCheck for anyone who claims to have earned a CLU, ChFC, FSCP or a number of other designations through the organization.
Can Anything Be Done About Financial Frauds?
According to Drummond, the CFP designation is actually a trademark and its terms and conditions are enforced through contract law. The CFP Board employs a team of people who actively investigate CFPs and look for trademark violations. They will attempt to correct the situation if it’s found that the trademark is being used improperly.
The problem with people like Patricia Russell, Adele Alligood, Steven Bennett and others is that they were likely never registered in the first place. Russell isn’t even a real person. So these types of fraudulent uses of the designation are largely off CFP Board’s radar (the group is, however, currently investigating Alligood and Bennett).
Rydzewski encourages anyone who believes a person is in violation of the CFP trademark to report them so CFP Board can investigate. You can do this by emailing trademark@CFPboard.org.
As far as other types of financial frauds go, report them to the overseeing organization. Even though there are teams dedicated to investigating and pursuing cases of fraud, there are just so many people claiming to be experts that the onus ultimately falls on individuals to check.
Although the internet makes it easier than ever to lie about who you are, it also makes it easy to verify a person’s credentials ― too easy not to.