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Look (and scrutinize) before you leap

time keyBy Joel Dresang

Fred Rogers wore long sleeves on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” to cover up tattoos. That’s what a long-time friend told me recently. She said she heard it from her brother in Florida. “Can you believe it?” she asked.

No, I couldn’t.

Then again, Mr. Rogers might have served in the military, and a lot of GIs seemed to acquire tattoos. So, it was possible.

A quick internet search found plenty of support for the claim. Then I found an article on Snopes, an urban legend-busting website. It explains that Mr. Rogers (who never was in the service) wore long sleeves to establish himself as a respectable authority figure on his PBS kids show. He had no tattoos.

With the proliferation of information sources and the sophistication of technology, I find myself exposed to a lot more Mr. Rogers stories – attention-getting, plausible, but false. I’m not alone.

It’s getting harder to separate fact from falsehood. Even on websites I consider reputable, I find myself drawn to intriguing headlines from paid content – advertisements masquerading as news items, similar to those being pursued by the SEC.

Not all misinformation is ill-boding or even intentional. Still, the advice “Don’t believe everything you read/hear/see” was never wiser.

Scrutinizing is important, but sitting on your hands is more the point. Deception won’t harm you if you don’t do anything about it. That’s especially true with financial matters. Remember what they say about fools and their money.

Fake news?
OnTheMedia.org includes these among its tips for dealing with “breaking news” of questionable veracity:

  • Big red flags for fake news: ALL CAPS, or obviously photoshopped pics.
  • If you land on an unknown site, check its “About” page. Then, Google it with the word “fake” and see what comes up.
  • Verify an unlikely story by finding a reputable outlet reporting the same thing.
  • Read past headlines. Often they bear no resemblance to what lies beneath.
  • Finally, if you’re not sure it’s true, don’t share it! Don’t. Share. It.

“The more you act, the more likely it is you’re going to make a mistake,” Art Rothschild points out in a Money Talk Video.

“The best thing most investors could do when they receive information – whether they believe it’s accurate or not – is to think first,” Art says. “Don’t do anything that will, on a short-term basis, negatively impact your long-term investment plans.”

Long-term, what matters most to investors are corporate earnings and interest rates. No breaking news story is likely to have such an impact on either of those that you would need to take immediate action.

At the other extreme, sticking your head in the sand isn’t going to help. It’s nearly impossible to avoid fraudulent efforts to separate you from your money. The SEC’s recent charges involved investment research websites, but the agency notes that such swindles are everywhere.

“Stock promotion schemes also may be conducted through social mediainvestment newsletters, online advertisements, email, Internet chat rooms, direct mail, newspapers, magazines, television, and radio,” the SEC says in an investor alert.

For all the clamor over fake news (The local newspaper has a weekly feature dispelling false news items – none of which I had ever seen before.), the traditional mass media aren’t as insidious as what we stumble upon on the web, what lands in our email box or what we hear from our neighbors.

In reporting back to my friend about Mr. Rogers’ lack of tattoos, I began to relate a story that I have shared dozens of times over the years. A Jewish friend once told me about restrictions against tattoos as a desecration of one’s body. Then it occurred to me that his tale too could be tall talk.

Sure enough, I just found a New York Times interview with several rabbinical scholars who pooh-poohed the common misconception that tattoos are considered taboo. Which goes to show how rumors spread and misinformation grows.

While it feels we have diminishing power over knowing what’s true and false, we still control our actions. And we know for sure that hasty, emotional decisions can disrupt well-laid long-term financial plans.

Learn more
Crash test dummies, by Joel Dresang
Making financial sense of “breaking news,” a Money Talk Video with Art Rothschild
”Investor Alert: Beware of Stock Recommendations on Investment Research Websites,” from the Securities and Exchange Commission
Stocks: Long-term, consistent returns, a Money Talk Video with Dave Sandstrom
7 tips for successful investing, a Money Talk Video with Marc Amateis
Focus on fundamentals to face volatility, a Money Talk Video with Steve Giles

Joel Dresang is vice president-communications at Landaas & Company.

(initially posted June 28, 2017)

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