Spin your radio dial, download a podcast or sit down at your next corporate gathering and you’ll have no trouble finding a self-styled financial guru to tell you what to do with your money.
What you may not know: Financial experts, even those with bulletproof credentials, may be trying to sell you something.
When David and Patricia Toshner of Fond du Lac, Wis., first heard Jordan Goodman discussing the Woodbridge Group of Companies on the radio, they didn’t know that he might also be a sales agent. They just trusted the man who called himself “America’s Money Answers Man.”
After all, Mr. Goodman was an 18-year veteran of Money magazine and the author of books with his smiling face on the cover. The radio station where they got their news pumped his honking, Rhode Island-accented voice into their home, promising 6 percent interest plus their cash back.
The Toshners put $510,000, much of it from an on-the-job accident settlement, into Woodbridge. For a few years, the checks arrived regularly, just as Mr. Goodman said they would.
But just over a year ago, the checks stopped. Soon after, the Securities and Exchange Commission declared that Woodbridge, which Mr. Goodman had described with glowing confidence, was a billion-dollar Ponzi scheme with thousands of victims.
And when Mr. Goodman was discussing Woodbridge on the radio, he was not merely dispensing financial advice, the commission said. He was one of the scheme’s leading sales agents, earning more than $2 million by steering investors into it. The S.E.C. said Mr. Goodman “in many instances misled investors to think he was not being paid transaction-based sales commissions.”
Mr. Goodman, 64, agreed in December to pay back what he had earned, plus more than $315,000 in interest and a $100,000 fine. He also accepted a lifetime ban from the securities industry, while neither admitting nor denying the S.E.C.’s charges.
His agreement with regulators carries a standard prohibition against declaring his innocence, and he declined to comment, on the advice of his lawyer. Before signing the agreement, he had said publicly that he had no idea that Woodbridge was not operating as it said it would when he was promoting it.
But a close examination of Mr. Goodman’s decades of work as a money guru reveals the many angles he worked. He made his living not just with books and speaking gigs, but as a paid ambassador for companies offering financial services.
The companies Mr. Goodman endorsed were a motley assortment, strange bedfellows for a man who made his bones at one of the country’s most respected financial publications. He had financial relationships with companies that promise to settle your debts for pennies on the dollar and allow you to borrow money using fine art and luxury handbags as collateral. And he dabbled in lending to borrowers via high-interest payday loans, then earned some more by channeling those who could be saved into nonprofit credit counseling.
These arrangements often made Mr. Goodman what is known as an affiliate, which enabled him to earn a commission for each new customer he helped those companies land. At other times, he took a flat fee to offer his endorsement.
Relationships like these are not illegal: Similar arrangements can be at play when people click a link that directs them to an item for sale on Amazon. And these deals are surprisingly common in the financial guru world.
But Mr. Goodman was particularly aggressive in pushing the companies that paid him and sometimes withheld crucial information from his followers when discussing the companies during his media appearances — conduct that, in the case of Woodbridge, particularly rankled the S.E.C.
A Personal Reckoning
When I heard about Mr. Goodman’s case, I took inventory of my memory. I had met him twice at conferences and appeared on his radio show in 2017 to promote a book I had written.
Nothing about him seemed out of sorts. Like most of us in the small world of personal finance, he seemed to be trying to help people and hustling hard to figure out a way to make a living at it.
But as I started looking into how he had gotten so many innocent people into this mess, it became clear that while the ending of his story was laid out in the S.E.C. charges, the beginning and middle were more muddled.
In the world of money experts who write or talk, where recurring subscription revenue is hard to come by and it’s hard to make money through old-fashioned advertising, there is no sin in pursuing alternative business models. Still, we all owe our readers and listeners a thorough explanation of how we and our employers make money.
So let me begin here: The New York Times owns Wirecutter, which earns fees when people read the site’s best-of reviews and click embedded links to make purchases. I am an unpaid member of the advisory board of Wirecutter Money, which publishes guides to picking the best credit cards and plans to publish more personal finance content as the site grows.
Wirecutter discloses and explains its affiliate relationships in many places on its site, and there are many differences between what I do for Wirecutter and what Mr. Goodman did.
So how much did people in Mr. Goodman’s audience know about how he made money? And what are the lines that public-facing money experts should never cross?
A Promising Start
When Mr. Goodman arrived at Money in 1979, the magazine’s parent company, Time Inc., was a dominant force in publishing, a temple of fact-checking rigor and high editorial standards. Money alumni who worked alongside Mr. Goodman at various points include the CNBC anchor Tyler Mathisen and Eric Schurenberg, who eventually edited the magazine.
Mr. Goodman was at Money for the better part of two decades and wrote about all aspects of investing, including fraud. In 1993, he wrote about a guru in trouble: A jury in Iowa had found Charles J. Givens Jr., an author of many books with his face on the cover, guilty of making fraudulent misrepresentations that caused a young widow to lose out on a large life insurance payout.
Before he left Money in 1997, Mr. Goodman appeared to be poised for a thriving solo career dispensing advice. He had helped write “Dictionary of Finance and Investment Terms” for Barron’s Financial Guides, and he took a solo turn with “Everyone’s Money Book.”
And then came a heartfelt rallying cry to play defense so the bad guys couldn’t get you: “Reading Between the Lies: How to Detect Fraud and Avoid Becoming a Victim of Wall Street’s Next Scandal.”
Life After Money
Once you have the kind of specialized knowledge that you can acquire at a place like Money magazine, there are lots of ways to make a living.
You can be hired by a company to address employees, or attendees at a conference. Financial service firms may buy commercials on your radio show, or hire you to develop new services.
Then there are affiliate commissions: cash paid out for every new paying customer an expert helps deliver.
Nowadays, these arrangements are supposed to be transparent. The rise of influencer culture, in which celebrities and social media stars cut promotional deals in exchange for Instagram mentions, prompted the Federal Trade Commission to issue guidance on disclosures. “If there’s a connection between an endorser and the marketer that consumers would not expect and it would affect how consumers evaluate the endorsement, that connection should be disclosed,” it said.
Mr. Goodman seems to have been an early adopter in the affiliate world, and his website lists more than 20 “Carefully Selected Resources to Help Improve Your Personal Finances,” like picking the right credit card or settling health care debts.
But even other financial pros who make money from such relationships thought Mr. Goodman had kept unusual company.
“Often, it seemed like he was playing in alternative spaces that the vast majority of us aren’t playing in,” said Philip Taylor, who runs the site Part-Time Money and FinCon, an annual conference for financial advice experts. He said he had turned down an invitation from Mr. Goodman to do business with him and one of his affiliates.
One hint came in a book that Mr. Goodman wrote about a decade after leaving Money: “Fast Profits in Hard Times: 10 Secret Strategies to Make You Rich in an Up or Down Economy.”
The book was a sort of declaration of independence by Mr. Goodman, who described how leaving the magazine had freed him to explore a world of “secret investment strategies” — like buying tax liens and deeds on homes when others have fallen behind on their payments.
The book’s final chapter, “Profit by Doing Nothing: Passive Income Strategies,” suggests that readers get into payday lending — as lenders. The idea carried Mr. Goodman’s endorsement: He had signed on for a spell as president of a 4,800-person investment club that helped people get access to the industry.
Adjusting to Changing Times
Mr. Goodman’s involvement with payday lending began as the market for personal finance books had begun to decline.
“Personal finance is the sort of thing you can get online kind of everywhere,” said David Pugh, who spent 17 years at John Wiley & Sons, one of Mr. Goodman’s former publishers. “Consumers are just going to other sources, and publishers reacted even faster than the market and pulled out in a lot of areas like that. Sales really disappeared.”
Mr. Goodman turned to what was then an author’s last resort, self-publishing. But technology would also provide a new avenue to build his brand: podcasts.
He was a frequent guest on personal finance podcasts and started his own hybrid internet radio show/podcast, “The Money Answers Show.” Mr. Goodman promoted his affiliates aggressively: He appeared last year on “The White Coat Investor,” a podcast aimed at medical professionals, and mentioned at least five affiliates. He disclosed his relationships with four of them, leaving out his relationship with Life Insurance Settlements, which buys policies from customers who want to be rid of the premium payments.
Dr. James M. Dahle, the physician who hosts “The White Coat Investor,” said he had never before had a guest who mentioned so many affiliates so aggressively. He hasn’t since, either.
“It’s not even close,” he said.
Making the Pitch
But Mr. Goodman’s most powerful megaphone was talk radio.
He had long been a fixture on the airwaves, including at powerhouse stations like KOA in Denver, KMOX in St. Louis and WGN in Chicago — 50,000-watt broadcasters that can often be heard several states away.
Starting in 2014, according to the S.E.C., Mr. Goodman began touting the prospects of commercial mortgage bridge loans, in which everyday people would help property owners and developers with their short-term borrowing needs.
During one appearance on a KOA show in 2015, Mr. Goodman advised a caller that these products, which he called “very popular with KOA listeners,” would allow participants to earn 6 percent annual interest and get their money back a year later.
“There’s a way of getting 6 percent and not having to worry about capital loss,” he said. “It’s very safe.”
Mr. Goodman told listeners to visit a website, where sales agents he worked with would help people sign up with Woodbridge.
The loans were supposed to work like so: People handed over their money, and Woodbridge would find borrowers willing to pay between 11 and 15 percent for short-term loans. When those borrowers made their payments, between 5 percent and 8 percent would go back to the investors and the rest would stay with Woodbridge and its agents.
Mike Rosen, the host of the KOA show, said Mr. Goodman had not disclosed his financial interest in Woodbridge — a 1 percent commission on all money that came in through his endorsement.
And Mr. Goodman pushed Woodbridge hard. Mr. Rosen said he had once accused Mr. Goodman of hiring listeners to call in and ask about the loans, something Mr. Goodman denied.
The pitch was enough to convince even Mr. Rosen, who had been swindled before in the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme, to invest.
“Jordan has a history, he was credible, and he had sold a lot of copies of those books,” Mr. Rosen said. “He wasn’t someone who just fell off the turnip truck.”
Mr. Rosen withdrew his money from Woodbridge after 12 months without incident. He was one of the lucky ones.
In December 2017, the S.E.C. accused Woodbridge of running a Ponzi scheme that defrauded 8,400 investors, many of them elderly. Money from new clients was being used to pay previous ones, the S.E.C. said.
Robert Shapiro, who ran Woodbridge, was borrowing its money to invest in real estate, including Sonny and Cher’s former estate, and pulled out $1.2 million to pay alimony and $3.1 million to charter private planes, regulators said. He was fined $100 million.
Mr. Goodman was charged a year after Mr. Shapiro. His radio recommendations were a key component of the accusations: Of 18 external sales agents charged in the scheme, he was the only one also charged under a particular statute for touting — violating a rule that prohibits communicating about a security if you haven’t disclosed your commercial interest in it.
Eric I. Bustillo, director of the S.E.C.’s regional office in Miami, said, “We’re dealing with senior investors, elderly investors and retail investors who are often vulnerable and perhaps not sophisticated and are easily influenced by individuals who basically purport to provide unbiased opinions.”
A Reckoning Revisited
So what lines did Mr. Goodman cross?
A few things seem obvious: The kind of lending that Mr. Goodman was luring people into was almost certainly too risky for many of those who would hear about it on a standard talk radio show. And failing to disclose his financial interest was unethical and legally risky.
But what about affiliate relationships themselves? Do they stain all they touch? And if not, how much disclosure is enough?
When I met with my bosses and The Times’s editor in charge of newsroom standards, we discussed Mr. Goodman’s saga and whether it was a mistake for me to keep advising Wirecutter Money. Because I do not earn money from Wirecutter, we do not believe it poses a conflict.
Still, I now disclose my Wirecutter role in the biography attached to everything I write. And while the Wirecutter guides contain copious disclosures, any time I write a column that links to one, it will include an additional heads-up to readers. Our weekly Your Money newsletter often contains a link to Wirecutter Money guides. Those also now have disclosures.
If Mr. Goodman’s case causes you to question other experts and their potential conflicts, well, good. Ask away. This stuff is too important not to.
Books and Bridges Burned
As for Mr. Goodman, he owes $2.7 million to the S.E.C., and is named in two lawsuits that could put him on the hook for more.
His business prospects aren’t exactly rosy. Kaplan Publishing, which oversees the Barron’s guide that Mr. Goodman co-wrote, is taking it out of print and incinerating the existing copies.
“We expect our authors to act ethically and lawfully,” said Maureen McMahon, Kaplan’s president and publisher.
One of Mr. Goodman’s more mainstream affiliates, the online loan marketplace Credible, has cut ties with him. So has Cambridge Credit Counseling, a nonprofit debt consolidation and financial counseling service.
“Our reputation is more important to us than a small relationship we have with a particular expert,” said the company’s chief executive, Christopher Viale.
One person is sticking by Mr. Goodman: Cathy Cagle, a consultant who helps him book podcasts and do other work.
“I don’t believe that he ever intended to do anything wrong, nor did he feel that he was doing anything wrong,” she said. “We tend to take the high road on almost every subject if we can.”
Victims in the scheme will get some fraction of their money back once the now-bankrupt Woodbridge sells its assets. In the meantime, the Toshners, the couple in Wisconsin who heard Mr. Goodman on the radio, have sued him. Among other things, they allege that he encouraged them to sell their home to have more money to send to Woodbridge.
“It was super safe and going to return 6 percent,” said the couple’s lawyer, Michael Schaalman. His clients would have been skeptical of an investment promising double-digit returns, but 6 percent didn’t seem suspiciously sky-high, he said.
“These were not greedy people,” Mr. Schaalman said.
Mr. Goodman’s lawyer has not yet filed a response. But Mr. Schaalman said that after the Toshners inquired with Mr. Goodman directly, Mr. Goodman did acknowledge that he stood to make some money if they made an investment. The details, however, were not clear, Mr. Schaalman added.
Last year, as Woodbridge was unraveling but before the S.E.C. caught up with him personally, he talked about the company on the radio. Don McDonald, a co-host of “Talking Real Money” on KOMO in Seattle, had Mr. Goodman on his show for the first time in years and confronted him about Woodbridge.
“I feel very bad that this was what happened, that the S.E.C. went after them in what I consider a witch hunt, basically,” Mr. Goodman told him.
Months later, Mr. McDonald was still baffled by it all.
“He is one of the smartest people in the financial business that I have ever spoken with,” he said. “He could not possibly be duped by an investment like this.”
But Mr. McDonald did not write off Mr. Goodman as evil — just vulnerable, as many people might be after watching less knowledgeable peers make money and wondering why they couldn’t get a piece of the action, too.
“You see all these stupid people making millions and millions of dollars,” he said. “I think he looked at these real estate deals and was willing to suspend disbelief.”
Mr. Goodman has written plenty over the years about the mind games we play with our money. His book about financial fraud offers sage advice that he might have done well to take himself: “The unending quest for easy answers or the inside track does not yield profits and never has.”
Doris Burke contributed research.