Patricia Russell wanted to help.
That’s what she wrote me in an email offering to be a trusted, helpful resource for my work. She was a certified financial planner, and the founder of FinanceMarvel.com, a website about getting out of debt, repairing and improving credit scores and more.
I get a lot of offers like that. I send a polite form letter telling any and all advisers that I want to see sample financial plans, a complete Form ADV — effectively and adviser’s registration paperwork — and to run a background check before I will even consider talking with them as a possible source for my work.
Russell, like most advisers looking for a quick publicity boost, never got back in touch.
She was too busy following through with other journalists as a source for seeming every conceivable financial story. She was quoted talking mutual funds, giving tips on the use of credit cards for business, offering up suggestions for your summer financial reading list and, of course, talking about credit repair.
She was cited in articles by writers for MarketWatch.com, U.S. News & World Report, Consumer Reports, Business Insider and many others. She was all over the personal-finance blogs.
The advice she was giving wasn’t particularly unique or helpful, but it also wasn’t real.
Russell was a fake, a figment of imagination, somebody’s bad idea of a way to market a website.
No one seems to know exactly who she is — her pictures online were stock photos, not actual personal shots — but the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards has no record of her, and her website shuttered seemingly within minutes of when personal-finance writer Casey Bond revealed the hoax in a July 26 story for the Huffington Post.
While there is no way to know with certainty if anyone lost money following Russell’s fake advice, her comments tended to be benign and unexciting. Truth be told, every story in which she appeared seems to be an example of a journalist or blogger getting lazy while writing uninspired copy, which made them vulnerable to a hoax based on quick quotes and sound bites designed to draw web traffic.
Sadly, it’s a symptom of modern media and the decline of independent journalism.
Even if consumers wound up clicking through the imaginary Russell’s “quotes” to view the Finance Marvel site, the worst thing they appeared to run into was a conflicted referral to less-than-ideal credit-repair services. They weren’t falling for Ponzi schemes and complete rip-offs.
“This was a fake persona trying to leverage some respected credentials in order to divert people to credit-repair companies,” said Bond. “But the other issue is that the personal-finance landscape is so rife with misinformation, conflicts of interest — all of these issues — and having a fake appear in so many places doesn’t help. This will make people skeptical or fearful that information being presented to them isn’t correct.”
That’s ironic because, again, the scam here appears to be less about misleading consumers than about eliciting a reaction from search engines like Google.
By appearing in articles on authoritative newsy websites — and getting her site mentioned there — Russell was building something called “domain authority” for Finance Marvel, making it seem more legitimate, more likely to show up when an ordinary consumer randomly searches for “credit repair.”
“They were building confidence in this fly-by-night website, that’s what they really were after here,” Bond said.
That’s alarming on so many levels.
Consumers look to personal-finance websites for advice, counsel and education. It’s harder to know whom to trust when you must worry about the motivations of everyone offering the help.
As the media has evolved, the safeguard of having the traditional journalist as a gatekeeper has changed. Today, many prominent writers work for websites directly sponsored by financial-services companies, or making bank by driving readers to “affiliates,” companies that pay a commission when someone clicks through and signs up for their service.
The FI/RE movement — for “financial independence/retire early” — is filled with bloggers, podcasters and would-be educators who have gotten out of debt, changed their lifestyle and who are committed to quitting conventional work life years early.
That portion of the blogosphere includes a lot of deals where the “experts” glad-hand each other — cross-pollinating websites by swapping articles and mentions — to increase clicks, eyeballs and search-engine visibility in the hope that it pays off in advertising and affiliate deals.
That doesn’t make advice inherently bad, but it forces you to play detective before you follow-through and take action.
— Don’t blindly trust credentials. They’re easily faked, but also easily checked. If someone tells you they have an accredited level of expertise — and that the certification impresses you or will add to your costs — check it out.
— Consider how a website might be compensated for getting you to act. Look at disclosures to see if a site acknowledges that it is compensated when you act on recommendations; seeing that someone is paying to play is not an automatic deal breaker, but it is a sign to proceed with care.
— Read all finance-related articles with a jaundiced eye. Plenty of writers these days rely on services — like “Help a Reporter Out,” which Russell used to connect with many reporters — or draw sources from online chat boards or social groups to find would-be experts they can quote in stories.
They’re vulnerable to scammers and fakes, to anyone whose primary motivation is publicity and their own bottom line.
If you don’t trust the source behind an article, don’t blindly trust links the article connects to.
— Shop around before acting on what you read. Whether you are looking for a financial app, credit-repair services, you want to learn how to trade, get a better mortgage or do anything financial, there are always alternatives.
Be a comparison shopper; only with your due diligence will you know if the advice you’re getting is solid, practical and, most important, real.
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