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How to Do a Background Check on Your Financial Adviser

Shopping for a financial adviser? Make sure to do a background check first.

A few quick internet searches can save you from handing over your money to a fraudster or someone who has racked up complaints from past customers.

Running into someone with a less-than-stellar record can be more common than you think. As many as 20 percent of brokers at some of the country's largest financial institutions have disciplinary records, according to a March study by researchers at the University of Chicago and the University of Minnesota.

It's up to you to do the research and ask questions to protect your money. Here's how:

Check their history

Typically, advisers fall into two categories. They are either brokers, who buy or sell stocks on your behalf, or investment advisers, who charge a fee for advice.

These Steps Can Turn Your Credit Around 1:39

If the person you are considering is a broker, they should be able to be found at Finra.org which is run by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority. There you can search brokers by name and see if they are currently licensed, have any recent customer complaints or regulatory actions. It will also show how long they've been in the industry and how many exams they've taken.

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If you're considering an investment adviser, they are searchable on the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission's website. When you find the adviser, you'll want to open the detailed report to see the person's past employers and if he or she has ever gotten in trouble.

Ask questions

When you meet with an adviser or broker, ask how they make money and try to gauge if they are working in your best interest. If they're pushing a certain product, you should ask if they get a financial incentive for selling it to you. Also, don't be afraid to ask if they've been hit with disciplinary action in the past and what happened.

"The best thing you can do to protect yourself is ask questions," says Sgarlata Chung. "If you start hearing things that don't make sense, trust yourself and walk away."

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The SEC has a list of questions on its site that you can print out and take with you.

Know what the acronyms mean

Some advisers may have a bunch of letters after their names that can be confusing. Those letters are acronyms for designations that the adviser or broker may have received by taking courses or passing a test.

To make sense of what the acronyms mean, go to this website. There you can see what organization gave them the title and whether you can verify it.