Dear Money Helps: I opened a brokerage account for my son at Success Trade Securities for a school project. He lost most of the money - and his interest in stocks. I tried, first online and then by letter, to sell the shares and close the account but heard nothing until January, when I was hit with a $50 inactivity fee. What gives? - Doug Munro, Warren, Mich.
Answer: No company likes to lose a customer, but some businesses make it harder than others to sever ties. According to Success Trade spokesman Patrick Dorton, you must sell the assets in your account before it can be closed. You should have been able to do that online, but around the time you wrote your letter, Success Trade was bought by Penson Financial Services. You couldn't log on because the old PIN, the last four digits of your son's Social Security number, no longer worked.
Even if it had, closing your account still would've been difficult. Customer service reps told you the necessary forms were on the Web site, but you couldn't find them. When we logged on recently, we couldn't find them either, although account withdrawal forms were on the Web sites of Success Trade's two subsidiary brokerages, Low Trades and Just2Trade.
Even though your letter wasn't enough to authorize a trade or closure of the account, customer service should have given you proper instructions on liquidating your assets and closing the account and told you that your PIN had changed. After we talked with Dorton, Success Trade agreed to waive the $50 inactivity fee and help you unload the shares.
The next time you run into a snafu with a brokerage, ask to speak to the firm's compliance department, which handles customer problems. And if that doesn't work, file a complaint with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (formerly the NASD), which licenses securities dealers. FINRA not only will help you get a response to the problem but, if the case is serious enough, will fine or punish the broker involved. No problem is too minor for FINRA to look into. "If we see a trend in complaints, that gives us a red flag," says John Gannon of FINRA's office of investor education.
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Reporting By Brad Nelson