3 Financial Service CertificationsSometimes, it’s a good idea to get some professional help with your finances. Unfortunately, not all financial service pros are created equal, and some who claim to be experts could actually be amateurs or even scammers looking to take advantage of your lack of knowledge. One way you can get a sense of whether someone is qualified or not, though, is to check their certifications. Many financial service certifications require rigorous study to achieve, and come with codes of conduct that their recipients must uphold. To learn about three of the most useful certifications, as well as how they can protect you from financial fraud, keep reading.

Certified Public Accountant (CPA)

Certified Public Accountants, or CPAs, are sometimes thought of as just people who prepare and file taxes, but they actually have a level of training far above standard accountants. CPAs know how to audit finances, help plan estates, conduct financial analysis, investigate financial fraud and more. To earn a CPA license, a person has to, at minimum, complete 150 semester units of college education, attain one year of accounting-related work experience and pass the 16-hour Uniform CPA Examination. That’s in addition to meeting their state’s requirements, which often call for even more work experience and passing tests related to professional ethics.

Using a CPA comes with more advantages than just their extra expertise. CPAs owe a duty of care to their clients and any third parties that rely on the CPA’s work, so if you lose money due to a CPA’s lack of care, you can potentially sue them for professional negligence or fraud. Even if you don’t want to take legal action, you can at least file a complaint with your state’s Board of Accountancy, which can issue delinquent CPAs citations and fines. Additionally, if you get in trouble with the IRS, CPAs are the only financial service professionals who have unlimited representation rights. Normally, accountants can only represent you to the IRS if they personally prepared and filed your tax returns, but CPAs are free to represent anyone on any tax matter.

Certified Financial Planner (CFP)

While “financial planner” sounds fairly official, the truth is that it’s a title anyone can give themselves, regardless of their financial service experience. However, Certified Financial Planners, or CFPs, have been vetted by the independent non-profit Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, which enforces guidelines on education, experience and competence. CFPs must at least hold a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university, complete three years of full-time professional financial experience (or two years of apprenticeship), go through a background check and pass a three-day exam covering financial planning principles and regulations. Also, to renew their certifications, CFPs are required to meet continuing education requirements.

Financial planners are supposed to help clients meet their financial goals, which involves reviewing sensitive information and making big decisions for people. An unqualified financial planner could mishandle your tax information and result in your identity being stolen, or a malicious one could guide you to invest your money in useless insurance policies or pyramid schemes. CFPs, though, have the training to carry out their duties properly, and are accountable to the Board of Standards if they commit ethics violations. The organization can suspend CFPs who violate their standards of professional conduct, or even revoke their certifications completely in extreme instances.

Registered Investment Advisor (RIA)

If you’re looking for someone to help you invest your money, working with a Registered Investment Advisor, or RIA, will give you the most security you can reasonably get. RIAs are registered with either the federal Securities and Exchange Commission or a state-run department, often have to pass a proficiency exam, and are required to act as fiduciaries when advising. Fiduciaries have a legal obligation to act in the best interests of their clients, which means any action they take must be based solely on how much it benefits your finances. If an RIA violates the fiduciary standard, that can constitute fraud.

Compare that to the suitability standard that brokers are held to, which only requires a broker to make decisions that they reasonably suspect may fit your needs, and you can see how much protection a fiduciary can bring you against conflicts of interest. A broker could invest your money in middling financial products primarily because those products earn them large commissions, but if a fiduciary does that, they could be charged with a crime. A majority of people who offer investment advice are not fiduciaries, and some only have to apply the fiduciary standard to some of their practices, so if you meet with an investment advisor, ask them if they work to the fiduciary standard at all times.

Financial service professionals with certifications may charge a bit more than their uncertified colleagues, but the experience and dependability that those certifications represent is often worth the money. If you encounter a certification or title you don’t recognize, you can look it up using a regulatory database such as the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority’s professional designation tool. For more tips on how to handle your money with care, follow our personal finance blog.