JANE BRYANT QUINN

Here's a little fact for investors to think about, especially investors with online accounts. Stockbrokers are being alerted to build their legal defenses, so they can't be blamed if computer missteps cost you money.

If stockbrokers are assessing their exposure to risk, maybe you should, too.

The investors that the brokers worry most about are those who buy or trade high-flying tech stocks, Internet stocks and initial public offerings. (IPOs are companies selling their stock to the public for the first time.)

Frankly, the professionals aren't sure that online investors know what they're doing. When a purchase or sale goes badly wrong, due to a misunderstanding or trading snafu, arbitration claims fall on the brokerage firms like tears.

You can't blame the broker solely because you made a mistake or lost money on a trade. But you might file a claim if the broker's computer system didn't perform as advertised, or if the risks of using it weren't fully disclosed.

Mary Schapiro worries about online firms that make investing sound "easy and instantaneous," when it's not. Schapiro heads NASD Regulation (NASDR), the regulatory arm of the National Association of Securities Dealers.

She's actively urging online brokerage firms to make better disclosures. The Securities and Exchange Commission is looking into whether it should propose new investor-protection rules.

The risks are highest for the army of day traders, who hold fast-moving stocks for just a few hours or days, and then sell. Their version of "stock research" is to surf the message boards on the Web.

But investors with longer-term goals face serious dangers, too, if they also dabble in IPOs and Internet stocks. Those stocks can be scuttled by sudden market action that traders precipitate.

Say, for example, that you decide to buy some shares in an IPO coming to market at $15 a share. You call your broker or enter your order through an online account. You place your usual "market order" meaning that the stock will be purchased at the best available price.

But let's say that the IPO is sizzling hot. It opens the following morning at $80 and rises from there. Your order is filled at $90. Then the traders who bought for less pull out and the stock nose-dives, leaving you with an irretrievable loss.

The NASDR wants your broker to put more emphasis on "limit orders," which save you from paying more than you intended to. For a $15 IPO, for example, a limit order might specify "not over $20."

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