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Tools to help find the right professional

Tools to help find the right professional

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Finding a company or professional worthy of your business can be difficult. How do you gauge honesty, fairness, experience and training?

Whether you're looking for someone to write your will or renovate your kitchen, Consumer Reports Money Adviser offers these tools and techniques to help.

*Ask friends and family. Getting references is especially important when you're looking for professionals who require a high level of trust, including doctors, lawyers, home-improvement contractors and car mechanics. But you should explore further. One person's good experience doesn't mean other customers are equally happy. Maybe a business does well under certain circumstances but not others, or has changed policies or owners.

*Get contact information. Don't get involved with a company that doesn't provide a telephone number and street address, especially if it conducts business online. Call or send an e-mail message to find out how well the company responds to questions.

*You can verify a website's owner by entering the addresses on a "who-is" server, such as www.who.is/whois. Ask questions if the address given in the domain registration differs from the address on the company's website or in its literature. And be careful if the company lists incomplete or clearly bogus information, such as an address in "Anytown, USA," or if it has registered its domain name through a proxy service, such as Domainsbyproxy.com, which allows website owners to disguise their identity and location.

*Check affiliations and certifications. Some professional organizations take complaints from consumers, rate businesses, issue certifications and maintain lists of members who have agreed to abide by its standards and participate in dispute resolution. Among the best known is the Better Business Bureau (www.bbb.org), though it has its limitations. Another is the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, or FINRA, an independent regulator of the securities industry. FINRA's BrokerCheck service (www.finra.org/brokercheck) gives you background information on registered financial firms and individual brokers, including any disciplinary actions.

*Other groups Consumer Reports Money Adviser considers worth checking with include the various state medical and bar associations; the National Association of Consumer Advocates (www.naca.net/); the National Funeral Directors Association (www.nfda.org); the American Society of Travel Agents (www.asta.org); and the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards (www.cfp.net/).

*Be sure to check several sources. If you're relying on the certification or professional designation from a source you don't know, contact the issuer to make sure what you're seeing is genuine.

*Check online user reviews. See what others are saying by doing a Web search for the name of the company or professional along with such words as "review," "complaint," "fraud" and "scam." Amazon.com, Bizrate.com, and other shopping websites let users rate retailers they feature.

*Of course, reviews might be posted by the company itself or by other biased parties. Scammers sometimes set up "rating" websites that warn about a particular industry and then recommend "legitimate" companies. Even unbiased reviews can be misleading or based on isolated incidents. The more reviews you find, the better the chance you'll get an accurate picture.

*Verify licenses and registrations. Certain types of businesses must be licensed or registered. Dealing with an unlicensed or unregistered professional is not only risky but also might limit your rights.

*Read policies and contracts. Whether you're dealing with a company in person or online, read all policies and contracts thoroughly.Businesses don't always present all of their policies clearly. If you don't see or understand something, ask. And get it in writing.

***

By the editors of Consumer Reports at www.consumerreports.org.

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