Even Google doesn't provide any solid answers...
The acronym RIA stands for Registered Investment Advisor. RIA’s provide financial advice for a fee and are regulated by either the Securities and Exchange Commission or the state in which it is registered. RIA’s are different from a Broker/Dealer in a few ways. First an RIA typically does not hold custody of the assets they advise on, this means that there is a barrier between the client’s money and the advisor. This barrier is typically a third party brokerage firm such as Schwab, TD Ameritrade, or many others. Second and RIA carries a fiduciary responsibility when working with clients. That means that an RIA is legally bound to act in the client’s best interest at all times. A Broker/Dealer carries a suitability requirement which means that they must be able to justify the investment recommendations they give. The fiduciary standard is a higher level of care.
Simply being registered with the SEC or state does not mean that an RIA is qualified, which is why you should always perform some due diligence research prior to entering into a relationship. Good sources of information include the SEC website, Brightscope, The Financial Planning Association, and the Certified Financial Planners Board.
An RIA is a Registered Investment Advisory firm. A person cannot be an RIA or refer to himself or herself as one. Employees and principles of an RIA firm are known as Investment Advisor Representatives (IARs) although the two terms are often used interchangeably in the common parlance.
A RIA is someone or a firm that is registered with a state or the SEC. They must agree to be a Fiduciary- Must consider what is in the client's interest First- before thinking about fees or commissions. It is the highest standard of care. An Attorney and a CPA are Fiduciaries and they hold themselves out to that standard of care. Stockbrokers, bank brokers and insurance agents are Not fiduciaries- and Do not hold themselves out to following the fiduciary standard of care. Also the RIA is subject to audit and review by the state or federal regulatory agencies who review their activities.
While common to use, those of us who are affiliated with Registered Investment Advisers are not supposed to use the term RIA or include it after our name like you would a professional designation.
Unfortunately, many consumers and the media (and some in our profession) are unclear on these points.
I worked for another firm and the principal referred to himself as an "RIA" and didn't appreciate it when I pointed out that he was only an "investment adviser representative (IAR)".
Now tell me how is it that consumers are not confused by the alphabet soup?
Example: My IRA is invested with an RIA through an IAR.