Not long ago the California Department of Real Estate (DRE) posted on its web site a warning regarding False and Misleading Designations and Claims of Special Expertise, Certifications and/or Credentials. Written by DRE Chief Counsel, Wayne Bell, the warning is directed both to consumers and to real estate licensees.

The introductory section states, The DRE has noticed an increase in the use of questionable and possibly misleading terms such as ‘expert’, ‘certified’, and ‘specialist’ in the marketing and advertising of assistance to anxious homeowners in connection with their home loans and foreclosure rescue services and short sales. To be sure, it also notes that Claims of special expertise, specialization and certification are lawful and permitted if they are accurate and can be substantiated.

The paper advises consumers to be wary and cautious when thinking about retaining the services of people or companies calling themselves ‘specialists’, ‘experts’, or ‘certified’ in the areas of mortgages, lending, foreclosure rescue, and real estate. As part of the caution consumers can exercise, they are advised to ask questions. A twelve-question list of the kinds of questions that might be asked is provided: How many transactions or services of the type you are advertising have you successfully performed? What qualifies you as an expert? How did you get that expertise? What are the requirements for certification or specialization? It is emphasized that the twelve-question list is not exhaustive.

Also provided are the addresses for the DRE and the State Bar web sites, as well as the suggestion that consumers do Google searches on the individuals who are soliciting their business.

Turning to agents, the author notes that, under California Business and Professions Code (section 10177(c)), disciplinary action may be taken against a licensee who has knowingly advertised a material false statement or representation concerning his or her designation or certification of special education, credential, trade organization membership, or business… As a matter of fact, the paper points out, it is a violation to willfully use the term ‘realtor' or a trade name or insignia of membership in a real estate organization of which the licensee is not a member.

The warning to agents does not provide advice on how to check out a course, individual, or sponsoring organization that offers to provide some sort of certification or designation. While it is regrettable that such advice is lacking, it is understandable that it is.

I know that at least once a week some such offer will show up in my spam file. Take this 3 hour course for $99 and earn your designation as a short sale cowboy! Become a certified foreclosure rescue hero! Sign up today for the $149 correspondence course. Etc.

While my own comfort zone doesn’t extend much beyond programs offered by the National Association of Realtors® (NAR) or the state Realtor® associations, I hasten to acknowledge that there are lots of good courses and programs offered by persons and entities outside the Realtor® organizations.

But the point remains, agents should be cautious about plunking down their hard-earned dollars for courses and programs that offer various designations and certifications. Try to check them out beyond the advertising fluff. Ask around. Try to find people who have experienced the course or program. And not just the ones whose endorsement is on the brochure.