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After Bernie Madoff, knowing who to trust with your investment funds

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'What do you value?'

Mr. Regier takes a more open-ended approach. As director of stewardship investing at Mennonite Mutual Aid (MMA), he asks what a company professes to value besides profits, then looks for evidence and expects proof to get stronger over time.

"We are very cautious about the practice ... of using executives' character as a driver for investment decisions," he says. "We've learned [that] good people, whether through their own devices or systems that they're caught in, can end up doing ... some very bad things. We want to see systems [of accountability to ethical standards] embedded in the company."

As Congress considers how regulators might protect consumers of financial products, some in the industry are getting out front by emphasizing their own wolf-spotting credentials.

"Even if you're referred to [an adviser or money manager] who's supposed to be a person of character, you still have to check them out," says Bonnie Kirchner, a financial planner in Marion, Mass., and author of "Who Can You Trust With Your Money? Get the Help You Need Now and Avoid Dishonest Advisors."

Formerly married to Ponzi scheme operator Brad Bleidt, Ms. Kirchner says clients should be suspicious whenever they get vague answers about how their money is invested or how their investment team is compensated. Character is revealed in part, she adds, when professionals own up to their mistakes.

In quests to discern character, approaches vary widely. Some professionals trust intuition while others look for measurable, objective cues. In the end, the question is not only whom to trust, it's also what to trust in making that determination.

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