JANE BRYANT QUINN

There's finally a new, improved version of the creaky old CRD. If you're an investor and never heard of the CRD, it's time you learned.

The Central Registration Depository, started in 1980, contains your stockbroker's past. Brokers have to report their employment history for the past 10 years, certain customer complaints, pending arbitrations, certain legal problems and any actions taken against them by regulators.

Insurance agents should also have their histories in the CRD, if they sell variable annuities or variable life policies.

You can get free reports on brokers or agents by Web, phone or mail. Check them out before starting a business relationship. If you didn't check before you started, do it now.

At the moment, investors don't have direct access to the new version of the CRD reports. But you have indirect access through your state securities commissioner.

Some 90 percent of the 600,000 active brokers in the CRD have clean records, according to NASDR, the regulatory arm of the National Association of Securities Dealers. The remaining 60,000 brokers, however, have been involved in incidents that you'd probably want to know about.

A single customer complaint doesn't mean that you're dealing with a rogue. But several complaints, arbitrations or financial settlements should warn you off.

The CRD is co-owned by NASDR and the North American Securities Administrators Association, known as NASAA, an association of state securities regulators.

The regulators started using the new Web CRD last month. They're facing the usual bugs and errors that inevitably mar a major software change. (On one broker's report, I found a single lawsuit reported as three separate complaints.) But once these problems are worked through, the states will be able to spot rogue brokers much faster than they could before.

Texas Securities Commissioner Denise Voigt Crawford says that, thanks to the new system, "I can ask for the name of every broker licensed in Texas who has at least five disciplinary incidents and get an instant printout." With the old CRD, it might have taken three months to get the same report.

There's also a new state-to-state alert.

For example, say that a California client complains about her broker. If that broker is also licensed in Texas, the complaint will pop up on the Texas regulators' screens. Bad brokers are going to find it harder to hide.

There's one big weakness in the CRD. It relies on brokers and their firms to tell the truth. Written customer complaints are supposed to go to the CRD within 30 days.

"The best and most honest brokers report promptly. The rotten brokers thumb their noses at the CRD," says Christine Bruenn, the securities administrator in Maine. A broker might have a clean record only because he or she threw the complaints away.

If you make a written complaint against a broker for a sales-practice violation, wait six weeks and then check the broker's CRD report.

If your complaint isn't on the record, notify the NASDR and your state securities administrator.

To check out a broker on the Web, go to www.nasdr.com, then click on "About Your Broker." You'll see the broker's employment history and a list of the states where he or she is licensed to do business.

If the screen says there's also a "disclosure event," your broker has a potential black mark on the record. You cannot call it up yourself. Instead, you have to ask to see it. The NASD will ship it out to you by mail.

Why the roundabout route? Because current law shields the NASD from broker lawsuits only when negative information is disclosed by mail or fax. Eventually, Congress will pass a new law protecting Web disclosure, too. When that happens, you'll be able to call up the negative information directly from home.

If you're not online, you can get a CRD report by calling the NASDR at (800) 289-9999.

There are two little problems with these mailed reports: First, they reflect the old version of the CRD. You get brief summaries of the complaints, which often are hard to understand. Second, the NASDR doesn't always tell you everything it knows. For example, it won't disclose complaints that were settled for less than $10,000, after 24 months have passed.

Here's where your state securities commissioner comes in. States generally disclose the full CRD report. They'll also send you the new, improved version, which gives you a fuller and clearer description of the infraction or complaint.

Your state commissioner's phone number is available through NASAA at (202) 737-0900.

Take care with policies

Warning to people considering long-term care insurance: Some of these policies are fatally flawed.

Instead of protecting you when you're old, they'll force you to drop the coverage before you can make a claim.

Long-term care, known as LTC insurance, protects the assets of the frail, confused or ill. It will cover a certain amount of custodial care help with bathing, eating, dressing in your own home or a nursing home. This saves you from using your personal money to pay all the bills.

Most policies are sold with a "level premium." To buyers, that means that the price of the policy won't go up. If you start at $200 a month, that's where you'll stay.

The policy's fine print, however, says something else. Although the insurer can't raise the price of your policy alone, it can put through a price hike on your entire "class" of policies. That means all the policies like yours that it sold within your state.

This loophole has spawned a dirty game. The insurer (often a small one) will tout a new policy at a bargain price. It will carry rich benefits, and might accept people who are in poorer health. You think you're getting a terrific deal.

Two years later, however, premiums might jump by 15, 20 or 50 percent. In another two years, they'll jump again. At that point, the policy won't be competitive anymore. The healthy customers will switch to something newer and cheaper.

Those left behind the older and sicker make claims at a higher rate, so the premiums on the policy will rise again. One by one, most of those older policyholders will let their coverage lapse, because they can't afford to pay.

When consumers have no other voice, they call the lawyers. A North Dakota class action goes to trial in October, against Acceleration Life and Commonwealth Life (whose business was bought by Aegon in 1997).

The policies at issue weren't going to make any money, according to a company memo produced for the case. To solve the problem, the memo said, the insurer should "file large rate increases to encourage higher lapses."

They drove out Harold Hanson, 94. When he bought his "level premium" policy in 1987, he paid around $1,094 a year, Kanner says. Nine years later, his cost had soared to $3,603, which Hanson couldn't afford to pay.

Of more than 2,000 people who bought these policies in North Dakota, fewer than 130 are still insured, Kanner told the court.

A spokesperson for Aegon says its predecessor, Commonwealth Life, has stood behind the policies.

For a good shopper's guide to long-term care, try "Long-Term Care Planning." It costs $18.50 and can be obtained from the United Seniors Health Cooperative at (800) 637-2604.

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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