NEWS
29/07/2019 6:28 PM IST | Updated 29/07/2019 6:28 PM IST

How This Fake Financial Expert Tricked Outlets Into Publishing Her Advice

Who is "Patricia Russell"? Not a certified financial planner, for one.

HuffPost Illustration/Shutterstock

Patricia Russell seemed to appear out of nowhere. A certified financial planner and graduate of several prestigious colleges, Russell has recently been quoted in major publications such as Newsday, MarketWatch, Consumer ReportsBusiness Insider and U.S. News, as well as sites that recirculate content on MSN and other websites. She has also written columns for personal finance blogs, including Moolanomy and Think Save Retire.

The only problem? She’s not a real person. 

Who Is Patricia Russell, CFP?

Fellow personal finance writer Elizabeth Aldrich initially tipped me off that something wasn’t right with Russell. We both on occasion use a service called Help a Reporter Out, or HARO, to find experts for our stories. However, we both lamented that many of the so-called experts who respond to our queries stretched the truth when it came to their expertise. HARO didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about how sources are vetted, though its rules state that media professionals are encouraged to perform additional due diligence.

Aldrich said she had received many HARO responses from Russell lately. The first time Russell reached out, Aldrich was interested in featuring her in an article. However, Aldrich couldn’t find any online presence for Russell aside from Russell’s website, FinanceMarvel, where she claims to be a certified financial planner. “I emailed her asking for a LinkedIn page, and she said she had zero social media profiles,” Aldrich said. “But while I was waiting for her to respond, I reverse-Google-image-searched her photo to see if I could find her profile on my own, and it’s a stock photo.” 

Indeed, an image search on Google turns up many hits for the samestock photo Russell uses for herself (stock photos typically feature models and are available for licensing).

“Now she has a LinkedIn [profile], which she created right after I told her I couldn’t use her responses,” Aldrich added.

It turns out Russell had connected with me on LinkedIn not long ago. And it’s an impressive profile. In addition to being credentialed as a CFP, she lists an accounting and finance degree from MIT and another in business administration and management from the University of Oxford.

Patricia Russell's LinkedIn profile, complete with a stock photo (but not the Yale experience she claims on her bio). 

Russell had also emailed me several times about various stories I was working on, wanting to share her expertise. She had thoughts on everything from the best time to buy a car to how the dark web works. What a breadth of knowledge for someone who specializes in financial planning. 

It wasn’t difficult to verify whether Russell’s claims about her expertise were true, yet it appeared no one had bothered. A quick search on the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards’ database of registered CFPs did not turn up anyone named Patricia Russell. Dan Drummond, director of communications for the CFP Board, confirmed there is no CFP named Patricia Russell. Drummond is currently investigating the situation.

Giving her the benefit of the doubt, I emailed Russell and asked if she was perhaps certified under a slightly different name. She told me that yes, in fact, she recently got married and her details hadn’t been amended yet. She directed me to a webpage that lists all her media mentions. 

At this point, my BS meter was on high alert. Hoping to coax more information from her, I played along and asked for her maiden name ― the one she earned her CFP credential under.

In order to spare the real-life woman with the name Russell gave me, I won’t disclose it here. But it was clear that she simply picked a person named Patricia from the CFP Board’s list and hoped I would believe it was her, despite none of the relevant personal details lining up. 

Next, I contacted the registrar’s office at MIT to verify whether there was a record of Russell attending. A representative explained that the office can’t definitively confirm that a person did not attend MIT, as there can be situations where someone enrolled under a different name, participated in a special program, etc., but they did confirm that there was no record of an individual with either name I was provided. The University of Oxford did not respond to requests for comment.

Russell’s story broke down further on FinanceMarvel’s “About” page. There, according to our screenshots, she claimed to be a single woman in her early 30s working to be mortgage-free by age 40. It said she was a graduate of Yale’s School of Management. 

A section of FinanceMarvel's "About" page, again featuring the stock photo and CFP trademark, before it was scrubbed on July 25.

“I will share my knowledge and teach you how to repair and improve your credit score, how to become debt-free, how to save more money and how to generate a passive income,” she wrote.

The years of expertise in finance she listed in her bio fluctuated between 10 and 25, and she claimed her FICO score “has been well above 800 every year for the last 20 years,” despite the fact that she could only have been an adult for a maximum of about 17 years. 

“I spent 25 years researching, testing, and proving these methods ― they work,” she wrote, after introducing herself as a person in her early 30s with a decade of experience. 

After I presented my findings to Russell and repeatedly pressed her to reveal her true identity, she continued to refuse. She said that she is using a pseudonym to protect her privacy and avoid identity theft, and has since updated her “about” page to acknowledge her name isn’t real.

“Whilst I do have relevant credentials to my real name I have decided it was in my best interest to remove them in order to avoid any misunderstandings,” she states on the page. 

However, it’s clear that more than just her name was misleading, as she deleted the entire lengthy story describing her journey to becoming a financial expert and replaced it with the disclaimer.

FinanceMarvel heavily promotes credit repair companies.

Many of the posts on the FinanceMarvel blog promote various credit repair companies. Presumably, these are affiliate partnerships (a common way for bloggers to make money) in which Russell is paid every time someone clicks a link or signs up for services through one of the companies mentioned. In one blog post, she wrote with delightful irony, “I’ve seen my fair share of fly-by-night companies come and go and know how to spot a scam when I see one. Unfortunately, the industry is still rife with credit repair scammers preying on those individuals who are desperately seeking help to repair their credit rating.”

It’s not possible to see who the owner of FinanceMarvel.com is, as its site owner information is protected by a paid service that keeps it hidden. However, by performing a reverse IP lookup, I can see all of the websites that are hosted on the same server as FinanceMarvel.com. There are a number of other finance sites, many related to debt relief and credit repair, including: 

  • Aaadebtconsolidationloan.com

  • Arizonadebtconsolidationquote.com

  • Californiadebtconsolidationquote.com

  • Call4debtrelief.com

  • Creditrepairexpert.org

  • Floridadebtconsolidationquote.com

  • Freedebtmanagementtips.com

  • Helpwithdebtsettlement.com

  • Helpwithmycreditcarddebt.com

  • Howtodebtnegotiation.com

  • Howtodebtsettlement.com

  • Illinoisdebtconsolidationquote.com

  • Nationaldebtreliefaffiliates.com

  • Nationaldebtreliefreviews.com

  • Newyorkdebtconsolidationquote.com

  • Nocreditcardbills.com

  • Pennsylvaniadebtconsolidationquote.com

  • Stopdebt.org

  • Texascreditcarddebt.com

  • Texasdebtconsolidationquote.com

  • Texaspersonalloans.org 

What many of these sites have in common (in addition to the same server, spammy design and low-quality financial advice) is that they reference the company National Debt Relief via advertisements and affiliate links. A few also have the owner information listed publicly. Adam Tijerina, marketing manager for National Debt Relief, is listed as the owner of several of the websites on the server, including stopdebt.org and texaspersonalloans.org.

According to Tijerina, there is no connection between his websites and FinanceMarvel. When contacted to inquire whether he or any of his colleagues know who owns the site FinanceMarvel, Tijerina looked up the information on the website’s contact page and responded, “As far as I know, we are not working with Patricia and FinanceMarvel.com.” In response to a follow-up question, he noted that any website he is personally affiliated with will mention National Debt Relief (Russell’s does not) and he is not writing under the pen name of Patricia Russell.

“Russell” Caught Red-Handed

Though we still have no idea who is really behind the Patricia Russell persona, the fact that they’ve quickly scrubbed their online presence of the personal details outlined above indicates they have more than their name to hide.

If only this were a case of a bumbling, non-tech-savvy financial professional who innocently used a pen name. The fact that Russell used the CFP registered trademark with a fake name, lied to me about her maiden name so I would think she was another person, fabricated her educational background and represented herself to the media as an expert under a false identity without disclosing it suggests that deception was always the intent. If Russell is, in fact, a CFP, she didn’t just violate the board’s code of ethics, she drove a Mack truck right through it, or at least the parts that state CFPs must “act with honesty, integrity, competence, and diligence,” “avoid or disclose and manage conflicts of interest,” and so forth. 

Russell informed me that she’s contacted her lawyer about potential issues with using a pen name and said that, due to the “ethically grey area” of associating her CFP credentials with it, has decided to change her title. Russell, whoever she ― or he, or they ― really is, is now listed as the editor of FinanceMarvel on her website, social media profiles and email signature. The education and credentials sections of her LinkedIn profile have been deleted as well.

Another Drew Cloud, Except Way Worse

This isn’t the first time something like this has happened. In 2018, an investigation by two reporters at the Chronicle of Higher Education revealed that Drew Cloud, a well-known and frequently quoted student loan expert who wrote for a website called Student Loan Report, was actually a fictional person fabricated by financial services marketplace LendEDU.

“Drew Cloud is a pseudonym that a diverse group of authors at Student Loan Report, LLC use to share experiences and information related to the challenges college students face with funding their education,” Nate Matherson, CEO of LendEDU, told the Chronicle.

The situation was undoubtedly embarrassing for all the reporters and media outlets that developed a relationship with this nonexistent source and quoted his research and expertise in their articles. But to me, the case of Patricia Russell is much more alarming. 

Unlike Drew Cloud, who was passed off as an everyday guy who happened to know a lot about student loans, Patricia Russell has been falsely representing herself to the media using the CFP registered trademark, claiming a certification that’s incredibly difficult to achieve and implies the highest standards are being met when it comes to education, experience and ethics. And it took all of five minutes to discover that Russell was not who she said she was.

Unfortunately, growing competition for clicks and a rapidly moving news cycle mean writers or reporters aren’t always performing their due diligence when it comes to verifying information. That leaves an opportunity open for people like Patricia Russell, Drew Cloud and who knows how many other false identities to weasel their way into our trust. It’s our responsibility ― now more than ever ― to safeguard readers from false information and uphold the highest standards possible.

It also goes to show how pervasive pseudo-journalism is within the personal finance industry. Websites are often used to take advantage of consumers who are looking for help and to disguise marketers as sources of unbiased financial advice. Not all sites that engage in affiliate marketing are bad, by any means, but it’s important to know exactly where financial advice and recommendations are coming from so you can make an informed decision with your money.

A legitimate financial professional without ulterior motives has no reason to hide their true identity. So take such financial advice with a grain of salt, and take extra steps to verify the background of an “expert” if something doesn’t seem right.