Gerri Willis Commentary:
Top Tips by Gerri Willis Column archive

Don't let the brokerage fees bite

Those little brokerage fees may be eating away at your hard-earned returns. Here's how to get to the bottom of what your broker is really charging you.

By Gerri Willis, CNN

NEW YORK ( -- In an ideal world, stock brokers would be on your team, helping you earn huge returns. In the real world, their steep fees may be eating away at those very returns. With the Dow Jones Industrial Average on a roller coaster ride, the last thing you want to find out is that your broker is skimming off your money. Here's how to avoid being ripped off.

1: Uncover the fees

Opening a brokerage account can be a very smart move, but be aware of all the potential fees. Some brokerages will charge inactivity fees if you don't make a certain number of trades every quarter. This fee is usually $10 to $12.50, according to Robert Brokamp of the Motley Fool.

Other brokerages may charge transfer fees from $50 to $100 to discourage you from transferring to another broker. Now, almost all accounts have some kind of account maintenance fee.

Of course, watch out for minimum equity requirement fees. This is a fee you'll pay if you don't have a minimum balance in the account. Unless you have a significant amount of money to invest, these fees aren't usually negotiable.

2: Know the terms

All brokers are not investment advisors. And there's a big difference. Brokers are obligated to sell you a product that suits your needs. An investment advisor must look at your complete financial picture and act in your best interest.

Make sure you ask your broker what services you're getting and what the commissions and fees are.

3: Establish credibility

Make sure you find out if the broker is licensed or registered before making an investment. Go to the financial industry regulatory authority's web site at

Here you can do a broker check to find out about any complaints - and how the charges were resolved.

It also helps if the broker has another designation - like CFP, Certified Financial Planner - because this insures that he is abiding by designated ethical standards.

4: Go with your gut

When it comes down to it, stock brokers are salespeople. If you feel pressured to buy a certain product, or you feel uncertain about the advice you're getting, it's time to shop for another broker.

If you feel you've been wronged, file a complaint with the branch manager, or take it up with the NASD or SEC. Of course, keep a written record of all of your correspondence, which is easily accomplished over e-mail. Top of page

Gerri's Mailbox: Got questions about your money? We want to hear them! Send e-mails to or click here - each week, we'll answer questions on CNN, Headline News and

Why you should ignore the Dow's big swings

Money 70: Best funds you can own