Anything new that happens in the investment world is sure to become a hook for somebody's get-rich-quick hustle. Today, the hustlers are riding the online investment craze.

Their hype makes computers sound like magic money machines. You just learn the right "strategies" (at a pricey seminar), click your mouse and rake in the bucks.

Without doubt, there's plenty to learn about using computers to help you pick stocks. But a lot of teaching is free on the Web or available in books or classes that are modestly priced. You don't have to pay the stiff prices the gurus charge.

Take the Utah-based Online Investors Advantage, which swooped into New York last month on a blitz of hyperventilating radio ads. My associate, Dori Perrucci, attended one of its free seminars. About 150 people showed up. They heard a 90-minute sales pitch for OIA's two-day investment boot camp: $2,995, if you sign up "right now," and $1,995 for the home-study version.

OIA's pitch is familiar to any connoisseur of quick-buck games: "Retire early and retire rich." "Turn as little as two hours a week into hundreds even thousands of extra dollars every month."

OIA's co-founder, Ross Jardine, says that's no hype because many people are indeed getting rich in stocks. His seminars are packing them in. OIA reported $4.4 million in revenues in the first quarter of this year, compared with a total of $3.4 million in the last three quarters of 1998.

At OIA's boot camp, attendees learn how to use a Web-based stock-screening program that supposedly shows you which stocks to buy and sell. (The program isn't OIA's; it's leased from Telescan, another company on the Web.) They also learn about option trading, and get a newsletter they hope will make them richer quicker. This package of services costs $495 every half year.

Jardine supplied us with two happy customers to talk to Jim Carpenter, 47, identified as a consultant in Dallas, and Carol M. of Salt Lake City, a flight attendant, who didn't want her last name used. Both said they've made money fast, by buying and selling options.

For lessons in online investing, you don't have to pay nearly as much as OIA demands. Lessons are available in many places. For example, the highly regarded stock publication, Value Line, charges $85 for lessons about its stock-screening service (the service itself costs $995 on the Web, or $570 on paper). Dow Jones, which publishes The Wall Street Journal, offers six Net-based courses at $49 each.

Think about that before shelling out $3,000 to anyone.

Pricing life insurance

If you haven't shopped around for cheaper life insurance coverage lately, do it now.

Not only have term rates dropped dramatically, you can also lock in your rate for 20 or 30 years. This may be the last year that price guarantees will be offered for so long a period of time.

Starting next year, the term-insurance market is going to change in many states, due to a change in regulations. Policies with long-term price guarantees are probably going to cost you more. You'll still have access to cheap term insurance, but its price will probably be fixed only for five or 10 years. At the end of that period, the insurer could decide to charge you more.

How much life insurance should you have? As a rule of thumb, couples with two small children should be insured for at least seven times the amount of money they earn (including any coverage they get through their employers). If you earn $70,000, you'd want a policy in the $490,000 range, or higher.

At 40, a man in good health, who doesn't smoke, can get $500,000 worth of term coverage for around $390 a year in most states, guaranteed for 20 years. A woman would pay $325 a year.

State regulators worry that some insurers aren't holding enough cash in reserve to pay future claims on these policies if new sales slow down. So they're changing the way that insurers have to calculate the size of their reserves. The proposed regulation, known as Triple X, was OK'd in March by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.

Triple X still has to be approved by the individual states. The earliest it could take effect would be next Jan. 1. So far, about 21 states appear to be on board, says consulting actuary Jim Van Elsen of Colfax, Iowa, one of the regulation's prime movers.

To get the additional money they'll have to hold in reserve, insurers will probably raise premiums on policies with long-term guarantees. The change covers only policies issued after the new regulation has passed.

Under Triple X, term policies with rates guaranteed for 20 years and up could cost 10 percent to 40 percent more, says Chris Kite of FIPSCO in Des Plaines, Ill., a company that provides insurers with marketing software.

John Scott, president of Zurich Kemper Life, says term policies with 30-year premium guarantees will all but vanish. You'll still find plenty of super-low-priced term insurance for sale. Insurers can comply with Triple X without raising premiums or even increasing their reserves. All they have to do is guarantee the price for a fewer number of years.

For example, they could sell you a 20-year term policy with low premiums guaranteed only for the first five or 10 years. After that, premiums could rise. (Some insurers sell policies like this already.)

But Bob Barney, president of Compulife, thinks these policies will be mis-sold. In fact, he says, they're being mis-sold already. Agents don't always tell buyers that their future premiums might rise. If you ask, they'll probably assure you that term premiums always have fallen in the past, so you don't have to be concerned.

Next year, we'll know more. In the meantime, this is the year to buy, with the longest price-guarantee you need.

Syndicated columnist Jane Bryant Quinn can be reached in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington D.C. 20071-9200.

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