Investors Go For Brokers

The Kennedy family gathers around the grave site as an Honor Guard carries the casket of Sen. Ted Kennedy at Arlington National Cemetery, in Arlington, Va. on Saturday, Aug. 29, 2009. Kennedy's remains will be buried alongside his slain brothers, John and Robert. AP

Las Vegas may be built on dreams of easy riches, but waitress Stacy Susman had a more modest dream: to invest for retirement. But the stock market was a mystery to her.

"I don't know when to buy, when to sell, who to buy - I don't know anything," she says.

So she gave $58,000 -- her life savings -- to a stockbroker with the instruction: invest for long term growth and be conservative.

Now Susman and thousands of others who worked hard for their money are fighting back against aggressive brokers who ignored their instructions.

"He bought and sold whatever he wanted," she says. "I was never asked about anything, never."

Susman lost $30,000, mostly in high-risk tech stocks. But she may get money back because stock market rules require brokers to buy stocks appropriate for their investors.

The New York Stock Exchange has a "Know Your Customer Rule". The brokers' association NASD, calls it the "Suitability Rule" - the stock has to suit the customer.

"If a stockbroker sells you a stock that doesn't suit you, you do have rights and if you've lost your money, you can undo the transaction," says Robert Talbot, a law school professor at the University of San Francisco.

Talbot has recruited students to use the rules to help small investors.

Law student Simone Brown is working with Susman.

"There was no communication between the broker and the client to make sure the investments were suitable and that she understood the risk that she was undertaking," Brown says of Susman's case.

When Susman's tech stocks collapsed, her broker said everybody was getting hit.

"He betrayed me because he knew I didn't know what I was doing," says Susman.

Other investors like Susman, pushed into risky stocks by their brokers, are getting some justice.

Nearly 8,000 claims filed this year thru NASD required brokers to pay back more than $126 million to wronged investors.

The once booming stock market turned out to be a much bigger gamble than many first-time investors had ever imagined. With stock market losses now measured in the trillions of dollars, many are learning their investment advisor had a duty to be more cautious.
  • Jaime Holguin

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