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INVESTORS ARE ARMED WITH BETTER INFORMATION

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Oh, do I love full disclosure! Investors are getting more educated and sophisticated all the time. Credit goes to some of the traditional media, CNBC, financial magazines - like Money, Kiplinger's and Worth - that specialize in investment matters, and to the numerous investment newsletter publishers who have popularized no-load mutual fund investing.

MODEL LEGISLATION. The Securities Act of 1940 established the fiduciary relationship between mutual funds and its shareholders, and both the consumer and the mutual fund industry have benefited. The consumers benefit from having all the information they need to make informed investment decisions, and the no-load industry has benefited as consumers know they can trust mutual funds to deliver on every promise they make.While mutual funds have been the shining example of full disclosure, the people who sell loaded (sales commissioned) mutual funds for a living (commissioned brokers) have sometimes been less than forthright. Sure, there are some good, honest and ethical brokers out there - I haven't found enough of them yet - but the individual investor has few tools to use for evaluating a broker or a financial planner.

SMART INVESTORS STICK WITH NO-LOAD FUNDS. Of course, I have always urged investors to educate themselves to the point where they can make their own informed investment decisions and deal directly with no-load funds and/or discount brokers. However, I know some of you are going to use full-service brokers no matter what I tell you.

If you insist on doing business with a full-commission stockbroker, the least you can do is to make sure that you're doing business with someone who deserves your trust. Up until now, there was no easy way for individuals to check out a broker's ethical track record.

BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING. The National Association of Securities Dealers (NASD) is the self-regulatory body of securities salespeople. The NASD has the duty of maintaining and preserving honest business practices within the securities industry. This includes powers such as levying monetary fines, license suspension and even permanent license revocation.

As of July 1, the NASD began offering an outstanding free public service to help investors get full disclosure on stockbrokers, financial planners and securities salespeople.

REGULATOR HOTLINE. You can now call a toll-free number and get a fairly complete history on any licensed securities salesperson. All you need is his or her name and the firm for which they work, and you can find out:

1. All criminal records, indictments and convictions, especially those involving NASD-member firms. It would be nice to know if your broker is a convicted criminal and even better to not do business with one.

2. Any civil judgments involving securities. If your broker ripped off an investor who then successfully sued him/her, that is probably a good indication that you should look for another broker.

3. Records of any pending disciplinary proceedings from the NASD. Brokers who have been formally reprimanded by the NASD or are about to be should be avoided.

4. Arbitration decisions and results. A broker who has been repeatedly taken to arbitration is probably doing something less than perfect. You don't want to be his/her next arbitration case.

THE CALL IS FREE. The hotline is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. EDT. Call 1-800-289-9999 and hopefully you won't be unpleasantly surprised.

Be advised that just because the NASD doesn't have any dirt on your broker, that doesn't mean he/she is an angel either. Maybe they just haven't been caught yet.

HONEST BROKERS SHOULD LOVE THIS SERVICE. Those brokers who conduct a clean, ethical business will probably love to see some of their less-than-honest brethren exposed. The bad brokers give all brokers, good ones included, a bad name.

So whether you're considering a new broker or just want to find out about the broker you are currently doing business with, this hotline is a great service. As always, the best way to protect yourself against getting ripped off is to become an informed investor. Knowledge is power.