Breathes there a man or woman who likes money who hasn't thought of financial planning as a career? Millions of Americans want help with their budgets and investments. Thousands of planners now offer it, in small businesses that they run themselves.
Anyone can be a financial planner. You don't have to pass any courses or take out a license. Because of this ease of entry, crooks and incompetents can don three-piece suits and meddle with customers' money, a point I've warned about more than once.
Today I come with a different kind of warning -- for people who think they might like to become planners themselves. You, too, can be taken advantage of, by firms that promise to help you get into business, ask for your money and then vanish without a trace.
Take, for example, the incomplete story of the American Financial Planning Group (AFPG), which a reader brought to my attention. I was especially interested because AFPG was promoting itself by using a quote from one of my columns (misspelling my name as "Janet" Bryant Quinn).
This report will be incomplete because the company has disappeared.
An employe of the state comptroller's office in Florida, where AFPG did business, kindly dropped by its offices, at this column's request, to see what was there. He found an empty room with phones on the floor. Don Saxon of the securities division of the state comptroller's office says the company wasn't incorporated in Florida. No officers of AFPG were named on the mailing brochure, so the trail is cold.
Pat White at the Clearwater (Fla.) Better Business Bureau has had some inquiries about the firm but no complaints. "They were new to our files in November 1986," she said. "We requested information from them, but no information was ever received."
AFPG's appeal was similar to the many work-at-home schemes that attract so much money from hopeful, ambitious, sometimes desperate consumers but that never pan out.
To become a planner, the company said, you had only to send $597 for a starter kit. You would advertise for clients, help them fill in a questionnaire about their financial situation and send the data to AFPG, which would return you a super-nifty 80- to 105-page plan.
You could charge clients anything you wanted, but the company suggested $495 to $595. A dandy chart showed that by hiring five commission salespeople, you could easily gross anywhere from $700,000 to $1 million a year.
To cap it all off, AFPG claimed that you needed no special knowledge or experience to become a successful financial planner. You just had to rake in the money, while the AFPG's staff did the real work.
To me, a pitch like this shouldn't even pass the initial smell test:
The brochure dangles dreams of impossible earnings.
It claims you can make all that money without knowing anything about the business.
None of the people behind the company is named.
One interesting angle is that the mailing label, on the brochure that the reader sent to me, bore the name of Changing Times, the well-known Kiplinger magazine on personal finance. "Are these people associated with Changing Times?" he wanted to know.
Absolutely not, but here's how such labels come about:
AFPG advertised in Changing Times, in a package of ads put together by a Florida advertising agency. That magazine, like hundreds of others, has a service page, through which readers can send for further information about advertised products and services. When you ask for such material, it generally comes with the name of the magazine on the mailing label.
"It is a virtually universal practice," says Changing Times editor Knight Kiplinger. "It is supposed to help readers remember they requested the brochure."
But occasionally it backfires -- when an unknown organization like AFPG is seen as piggybacking on the reputation of a good publication. Kiplinger says he is reexamining the practice.
I couldn't get AFPG's comments on all this because I couldn't find them. I don't know if they had any would-be planners' money in their pockets when they vanished.
But I do know this: If you want to be a successful financial planner, you'll have to do it the hard way. Study.