Anytime we look for a professional whether it's a doctor, a lawyer or a financial advisor, one of the things we tend to do is to check out all those plaques on their walls. Some tell you what schools they went to and others reveal board certifications that relate to their specialties.

In financial services, some of the most common and prestigious are the CFAs and CFPs. These stand for Chartered Financial Analysts and Certified Financial Planners and are just two of the more than 200 other credentials available to financial professionals.

How then can you tell if their certification is real or a great con job?

According to the Wall Street Journal, if a financial advisor calls themselves a "certified retirement financial adviser," "certified estate adviser," "registered financial consultant," or "registered financial associate," you should be wary.

Some of the people who help run the groups that grant these and other financial credentials have been disciplined by regulators or promote controversial sales techniques, according to examinations of court records and interviews with advisers, attorneys and regulators.

A financial credential, or designation, is a professional title that often includes the words "certified" or "chartered." Some, including the CFP and CFA, are earned only after rigorous course work and lengthy exams. Others can be obtained more easily.

The Wall Street Journal says there are at least 210 credentials in the financial-services industry, more than twice the number tracked by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA).  

Securities regulators say the organizations that grant credentials operate virtually unchecked, while medical schools have accrediting bodies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, and most law schools have accreditation requirements from the American Bar Association. There is no process for accrediting the groups that grant most financial designations.

Many of the groups that train advisers are legitimate and offer students meaningful preparation in financial management. They have highly experienced teachers who must pass tough screening requirements before they are allowed to prepare advisers for careers in financial planning—and have continuing education requirements to ensure that advisers stay sharp.

But some groups, says the Journal, have lower standards. According to the Journal, the Society of Certified Retirement Financial Advisors appointed an education chairman who had lost his state securities and insurance licenses. An advisory-board member of the National Association of Financial and Estate Planning was barred from the securities industry in his state for his alleged role in an investment blowup. The International Association of Registered Financial Consultants recently encouraged advisers to sell annuities in ways that might violate regulatory rules.

The lesson for investors: Before entrusting your money to an adviser, do some legwork. Start by looking into advisers' records via the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority's BrokerCheck and browse data from state securities regulators and state insurance officials.

The Journal recommends that you interview potential financial advisers as you would any other employee. Note how they describe their credentials. Ask them what percentage of the people who apply for that credential earn it, and what qualifications did their instructors in that program have?" If they can't or won't answer, that's a red flag.

The certified-estate-adviser credential, or CEA, was created by the National Association of Financial and Estate Planning, or NAFEP, which also teaches advisers how to prepare legal documents for financial and retirement planning. NAFEP's seven-person "advisory board" includes William E. Hopkins, described on NAFEP's website as a "broker dealer" with William E. Hopkins & Associates, a Jackson, Tennessee firm that has "integrated NAFEP estate planning as a key element of the brokerage's service.

According to the Journal, the website doesn't disclose that in 2005, Mr. Hopkins was barred from the insurance and securities industries in Tennessee for two years for his role in an investment blowup, according to a consent order from the Tennessee Securities Division. For at least six years, Mr. Hopkins sold debt instruments that purported to pay 9% annual interest, according to the consent order. The consent order said Mr. Hopkins misled investors about potential returns and safety. After the Tennessee regulators barred Mr. Hopkins, Finra ordered him to pay back $43,000 in commissions, pay a $5,000 fine and serve a two-year suspension.

If that's not enough, the Journal charges, that some groups that grant designations might be teaching their students questionable sales techniques, too. The International Association of Registered Financial Consultants, or IARFC, grants two credentials: registered financial consultant, or RFC, and registered financial associate, or RFA.

The June issue of its membership newsletter, the Register, featured an article called "The Ultimate CD Buster" by Matthew J. Rettick, president of Covenant Reliance Producers in Nashville. The article advised IARFC members on how to persuade investors into incurring an early withdrawal penalty on a certificate of deposit in order to buy a fixed annuity that would generate a sales commission.

Mr. Rettick urged advisers to tell clients that they can use bonus income from the annuity to offset the penalty for early withdrawal from the CD—but didn't mention that such income is "contingent," since it may be subject to surrender charges if clients have to sell the annuity earlier than expected.