YOU'VE probably seen the ads. You may have even fallen victim to them. The people behind them are often called ''carpetbaggers'' or ''cherry pickers'', and the money sloshing around Asia's booming economies attracts them like bees to a honeypot. In Hong Kong, the label is usually reserved for individuals who land here for a week or a few days to drum up business for investment, insurance or immigration-linked products, but have no licence here to do so. Genuine licensed advisers have mixed feelings about them. Some call them a problem in need of more vigorous policing. Others believe they are not all bad. The Securities and Futures Commission says it keeps a tight watch on them and has prosecuted several in recent years, but some advisers question the extent of the SFC's vigilance. Many may actually be registered outfits, with licences to operate in Britain, the Isle of Man or the Channel Islands, where investors can be compensated for losses. But others hail from countries where compensation schemes may not exist. The carpetbagger's routine is familiar and should immediately send messages to anyone attracted by an enticing advertisement or a friend's recommendation. ''They set themselves up in a hotel room or a friend's apartment for several days, perhaps once or twice a year,'' says Barry Lea, financial services director at Hill Samuel. ''They then cold-call or they mail in advance. They meet people in the hotel, and the whole aim is to get people signed up while they're here.'' The problem, he says, is that apart from offering advice which is not legitimate here, their products - commonly insurance-linked investments - could also be unauthorised or simply unsuitable. Pat Tuohy, a partner with consultants Tresidder Tuohy and Partners, says he knows of some 50-60 occasions when carpetbaggers have been in town. But he believes concern about them sometimes ''borders on paranoia''. ''There may be carpetbaggers who don't actually need a licence,'' he said. ''If someone is marketing an insurance product in Hong Kong and not giving advice, they would not need a licence to do that. ''People in the UK who travel to Hong Kong are actually more in tune with the product matter. Some carpetbaggers know more than advisers here do,'' says Mr Tuohy. ''All I object to is people being given bad advice. Just because they're not registered here doesn't mean they'll give bad advice. The chances are it will be equally good, and in some cases better.'' Foreign companies often use seminars to sell their wares. There is nothing actually wrong with advertising or holding a seminar, ''but if a person comes to Hong Kong and advertises advice without getting the approval of the SFC then we may prosecute'', says Gerard McMahon, head of enforcement at the SFC. ''Or if they offer an investment scheme at a seminar there may be a breach of the law. We have sent our people to seminars in the past and we have prosecuted people,'' he says. Hong Kong investors have thankfully not seen a big scandal in which they have lost large amounts, although there have been scattered incidents, particularly involving cheques made out to an individual who has subsequently fled. Investors dealing with Hong Kong-licensed companies can claim compensation from an SFC fund. But this excludes cases related to foreign exchange or mutual funds, and compensation only runs to a maximum of $8 million a case, which is then shared among thevictims. ''Does it really make sense to have an adviser in a different time zone?'' he asks. Trevor Raper, chief executive of New Zealand Insurance (Bermuda), says potential clients suspicious of a salesman should first ask to see his or her registration certificate from the SFC. The next step is to contact the Federation of Insurance Agents and its registration board, where bona fides can be checked quickly by a trained executive. Mr Tuohy also warns would-be investors against making cheques out to individuals or even to companies which may be controlled by the person involved.