Updated: May 24, 2019
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This blog post is a transcript of the most recent podcast episode, therefore, it may have odd grammar at times.
Last year I'm sick at home feeling awful, I had the big cold of the year and I decided to take one of those little self-care days. I was a zombie sitting on my couch scrolling through social media. Admittedly I fall into the rabbit hole of social media every once in a while. I'll be scrolling and have no idea what I'm looking at and if you were to ask me, I would wake up from some Zombie like state and not have an answer for you. As I'm scrolling through my Facebook, here comes an ad across my feed and it reads something to the effect of “free pension review for teachers.”
The ad looked like something straight out of CalSTRS, for those that aren't in the state of California that’s the teacher's retirement system. It looked like they're wording, it looked like their branding, their colors, and their typography. It looked like it was from them and it really caught me off guard since I didn't know CalSTRS was running ads on Facebook. Then again, all things are possible. So, of course, in my rabbit hole stage I decided why not keep going further. At least now I have a mission that I'm on and I'm not just scrolling. So I clicked on the ad and I was led to a form that asked me the school that I worked for and my email. I filled it out so I could see what the next step was and I was then emailed to set up a time to meet on campus for my convenience or off depending on my predference.
Then I am told that the company is sponsored by the school district. Immediately I thought, hmm. Sponsored by the school district, that's a first. I didn't know school districts sponsor people to come out, run ads on Facebook, and come and talk to me about my pension. Now, I’m not a teacher so I don't have a pension, but I have worked with enough situations that I know something is off. At that moment I went into detective mode as I have a way of doing. I looked at the address of the company that was listed the bottom of the email and I looked up the person's name and email address. I dug, dug, dug, and then I dug some more. Guess what? The address that was used on one of these advertisements was for a shared office space in a nice part of town.
Of course, I called the office space to just, you know, check and see if this business was working out of this shared office space. Surprise, surprise, they never heard of this person nor they had they heard of this company before. Now I know from firsthand that people can tend to glob onto off shared office spaces and just use the addresses because some people never look it up. So I can't say for sure, but that looks like that's what was happening in this situation. It is interesting that they had never heard of this person before or the business that was listed on these advertisements. Then I called CalSTRS and I talked to some people at 403bCompare and they said absolutely not, school districts do not sponsor companies like this.
Then I looked up the credentials that she had and she was licensed to sell insurance, and can only represent a handful of companies. That's not the worst thing in the world as long as she's transparent about it. A few months later, a retired teacher comes into my office with one of the worst products I've ever seen. Lo and behold, whose name is listed as the agent on this contract, none other than the facebook advertiser.
So that lit a fire under me to get this content to you because this drives me crazy. These people are hiding behind these ads that look like they're coming from a legitimate source to give you a “free pension review” to then sell very expensive products and under somewhat false pretenses.
My questions for you… does this sound familiar? Have you run into this? Have you had somebody approach you and say that they're going to give you a free pension review, and told you that they're sponsored by the school district? This is happening across the United States every day.
Have you ever wondered why? it's because of a lack of regulation, a lack of protection for you? And of course, money, it's about MONEY!
Today I'm going to be sharing a memo put out by the California Teacher's Association. If you don't live in the state of California, don't stop reading because this is something that affects teachers everywhere.
I'm sharing their memo so that you can trust that I'm not some crazy rambling financial person, so that you can see what is really happening out there and what you can do in order to protect herself. As I mentioned before this memo comes from the California Teacher's Association, and it was put out April 15th, 2019
I'm going to do some side notes cause I'm a side note kind of go. So in the beginning of each school year 403b representatives and vendors ramp up their marketing activities and solicit school employees to buy their 403b insurance or mutual fund products. Some unscrupulous vendors who earn commissions and other compensation sell products to our members or teachers that may contain hidden fees and surrender charges.
School employees may invest in voluntary defined contribution retirement plans authorized by section 403b of the Internal Revenue Code. The schools can either use their own employees to administrator the 403b program, or they can contract with a third party administrator, also known as a TPA for short. Let me explain to you what that is. You have where your paycheck is coming from, and then you have the company that you want to put your money with, the 403b. The third party administrator is a third party. They're in the middle, you know the ham in the sandwich. So you have the bread as payroll, the ham is the TPA, and then the other piece of bread is the company that you're going to invest your money with.
You decide that you want $800 taken out of your paycheck every single month. The third-party administrator handles all the paperwork for that and communicates with the payroll provider. They make sure that money comes out of your paycheck and then gets delivered to the retirement plan that you're utilizing. They administrate all of this working behind the scenes.
403b vendors often purchase lists of school employees, contact information from private companies, which they use to solicit our members, teachers, by email, mail and phone in these solicitations. Vendors may offer to provide employees with information on their “state retirement benefits” or “free CalSTRS estimates.” If you're not in California, insert your retirement system here. These are often used as sales tactics to secure an appointment to sell employees an insurance or mutual fund product, which often carry high incomprehensible fees and surrender charges that are not often disclosed to the participant at the point of sale, or they're not transparently disclosed
Lists with your information can be purchased and there are lead generation companies that sell your information (see screen shot below). By the way, financial planners get a lot of emails that say, “Hey, join our lead generation list and you can get access to school employees and make lots of money.” Not only can they buy these lists, but a lot of your information is listed online for the public to see, like salary and email addresses.
Let’s go through the plans of action and talk about what can be done. Plan aA is what can the unions and the districts can do. Plan B is what can you do, because, at the end of the day, you have to make sure you're looking out for yourself.
What can the unions do? They can get the districts involved on specific mailers or solicitations from 403b vendors. The teachers association chapters have successfully requested the district release a disclaimer to employees clarifying that the district has nothing to do with the solicitation. So what the CTA is saying is that they've been able to ask the districts to make everyone aware that they, the districts, are not putting this information out, that they have nothing to do with a solicitation from these people. They might not be able to do it at every point of contact, like the Facebook ad that I saw. We are not going to see districts policing the internet for ads anytime soon, nor should they. They can, however, tell teachers during health and safety events, post signs in the lunch rooms, discuss this topic during orientation, etc.
In California, under the Education Code, a district's third party administrator is required to disclose any affiliations or compensation that the third party administrator receives from 403b vendors. So basically third administrators are supposed to disclose if they're receiving any money from the companies. There's a lot of money involved and these companies potentially could be sponsoring events, offering up money or lunch in order to get in front of you. So they need to be disclosing to you if this is happening.
They are supposed to require the district to ensure that the third party administrator maintains employee data in a manner that prevents affiliated 403b providers from accessing that data. It also provides it all personal information obtained by the third party administrator shall be used only to provide services under contract with the district.
Current law says that a school district can hire a third party administrator to provide general education information to employees about their 403b plan, including the enrollment process, program eligibility and investment options. This is described as administrative services. The third party administrator should not use this function as a sales or marketing opportunity to promote or highlight one or more 403b products. So there are third party administrators, for example, that offer 403b plans as well. They should not be promoting theirs or any other specific 403b provider.
Furthermore, school employees can lawfully refuse to meet with any 403b or third party administrator representative. Also, excluding 403b representatives from school grounds is permissible. The unions can also work with school districts to support or adopt a policy of excluding or limiting 403b vendors on campus.
You do not have to speak with these people, so if someone says to you somebody who's coming in, you have to speak with them, you have to talk to him/her about your benefits, Dah, Dah, Dah. No, you do not! You can say no thank you, not Interested, not today. Also, you can ask your school, district, and union to protect you by not allowing these people on campus. Let’s not forget that we need to protect our students because this is somebody, not affiliated with a school coming on the campus to sell something. They may bring cookies, burritos, and sandwiches but that isn’t worth it. Have you been offered these for a pension review?
Are they knocking on your door coming into your classroom unannounced? Don’t forget to print a copy of our “FINANCIAL SALES PRODUCT FREE ZONE” pdf for your classroom.
On to plan B, what can you do to protect yourself? What resources are in place for teachers? There's online tools and resources, CalSTRS and CalPRS have an online tool which is helpful and easy to use for an estimate of one's own retirement benefit.
So if someone's saying to you, let me estimate your pension for free, you may not need them because you can already do that. It's the above and beyond planning, that's what you may really someone for. If all they have is an insurance product to sell, then you're probably not going to get that comprehensive planning anyways. You're literally going to end up with the only tool in the shed, and that’s the product. So both pension systems that were mentioned here and of course insert your pension system in this conversation wherever you are, because you probably have something very similar available, have counselors to provide telephonic or in person counseling.
Also, employees should not be pressured into making a quick decision before purchasing a product. Employees should be sure to ask representatives to disclose all fees and commissions and put their recommendations in writing. I'm going to add in more to this. I'm going to recommend that if someone talks to you about anything, you ask them what your alternatives are.
For example, as I mentioned, not all insurance is bad, not all 403 bs are bad, that's not the case. Yet, if I come in and all I can do is offer you one kind or I'm incentivized to offer a specific one because I get paid extra or a bonus for doing so, then it’s probably the thing that I'm going to offer. What is that saying when all you have is a nail, a nail will be the solution to all of your problems. Well no, that's not the solution to all problems. There's many, there's probably many ways to go about handling your situation. So ask what are my alternatives? If none are offered, that's a red flag. If someone isn't willing to put how much they're getting paid on something, I call that a red flag. If you're wanting overall financial advice and counseling and help and all they can offer is a product, that's a red flag, are you really going to get comprehensive, conflict free information from them?
Finally, one of my biggest pet peeves is when someone says, “oh, don't worry about it, you don't pay me the company that I work with or that you put your money with, pays me.” Where do you think that's coming from? You, ultimately it's coming from you in some way. If you have a 403b mutual fund, then you might be paying a commission that is now going to the company and then that company pays out that representative. That affects your account value because you're paying that commission. You may also pay via annual fees and surrender charges if you leave the product. It ultimately comes from you. So if anyone says to you, you're not paying me, the company that I represent is paying me, that money's coming from you. That is ridiculous statement for them to make and that is the biggest red flag. Thank you but no thank you is what I would say to them.
Last but not least, employees can also visit websites like 403compare.com in California. This is a great website because they have a list of 403b vendors including disclosures on fees and performance. It was established by the CalSTRS board, which under the education code must maintain a website that provides impartial information allowing employees to compare registered vendors and their various investment products. I love this site for those that live in California and if you are not in California, push your state for this site, talk to your union, talk to the pension system push, push, push because this is great resource.
We do have a video on the website showing how to navigate the 403bcompare.com website. If you're not in California, it may make sense to look at it because we go into what to look for within these plans.
Below are screenshots from real job postings, lead generation companies, and conversations between insurance agents. All of these pictures refer to services offered to teachers. Did you know this was going on online? These are posted on websites not meant for teachers to ever see.
If you need to speak with a fee-only, fiduciary, financial planner please head over to www.wealthofoconfidence.com.