In Brief

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CYBER-CFP Try as they might, 36,000 certified financial planners could never serve all 100 million U.S. households. That's why pros and common folk alike should hope websites like Direct Advice and Financial Engines, which generate financial advice, will succeed. After all, planning is an objective, data-based task, convertible to software--in principle. Trouble is, many firms have introduced nifty online financial tools before their coherence and effectiveness are ensured. "This stuff is great, but we're killing people with it," says James Van Dyke, a senior analyst at Jupiter Research. Data entry is a delicate process, and mistakes can lead to confusion and misinterpretation. Analysts say Financial Engines and its peers concentrate on retirement projections that can be taken as guidelines; Direct Advice, noted for its breadth and for offering online communication with a real adviser, may be earning an A for effort but pulled a D- for performance early last year from Forrester Research. CFPs won't fear for their jobs until the day Web programs acquire the ability to reassure clients that their funds are well placed.

KNOW THE SCORE Credit scores (the three-digit indicator of your loan risk, available only to lenders) may soon become much more accessible. A California law passed this fall requires the main credit bureaus, Equifax, Trans Union and Experian, to honor consumer requests for credit scores. Now these three are considering making scores and explanations accessible nationally. Congress has also begun looking at a requirement for greater openness--one more factor pushing the bureaus to open up.