Net helps to untange the jungle

Armed with the internet, investors now have a wealth of financial information available at their fingertips. Some websites even offer tailored advice, but the major advantage is the access

Whether you are looking for a high interest savings account or considering buying shares in a Latin American investment trust, there are pitfalls for the unwary. Anyone picking their way through the financial services jungle must be armed with information -- and the internet has plenty of it.

Whether you are looking for a high interest savings account or considering buying shares in a Latin American investment trust, there are pitfalls for the unwary. Anyone picking their way through the financial services jungle must be armed with information -- and the internet has plenty of it.

"It's becoming almost a must-have facility for those investing," says Jeremy King, head of personal investment at ProShare, an independent organisation which promotes share ownership.

There is now a vast range of websites offering different levels of financial information, enabling investors to do their own research. And with many independent financial advisers now launching their own websites, you can even use the internet to get tailored advice.

Although most IFA websites act as little more than an introductory brochure, displaying the service offered by the adviser and their contact details, some do offer personalised money advice over the net.

Sort, for example, claims to be the UK's only regulated internet-based independent financial advisory service. Visitors to its site can complete a questionnaire on their financial affairs and receive a report two days later by e-mail or post giving advice on aspects of their money situation.

Sort's fees vary between £49 and £99 - lower than average IFA charges for this type of advice, which could range from £75 to £150 or more.

There are other IFA sites giving access to tailored advice online. IFADirect, run by Woking-based adviser Alastair Lyon, offers a fee-based advisory service, with clients able to complete a questionnaire on their money matters on its website. Once completed the form is submitted electronically, and a response will come by e-mail, post or telephone, depending on the complexity.

Not surprisingly, some financial planners believe the internet is not able to deliver proper financial advice. Face-to-face meetings are necessary to make sure clients understand all the important details of the commitments they are entering, they argue.

There are drawbacks to personalised advice given over the internet. The medium is far more useful for financial information. It is the ideal place to learn about the industry and read up on investment and how to make it succeed.

Once online, it is easy to hop, for example, from one unit trust provider's website to another. M&G and Johnson Fry's websites are both easy to navigate and packed with plain English information about their range of investment funds.

But the most useful for those who have yet to become personal finance fanatics are the growing number of independent sites which give a broad range of money information.

Moneynet, for example, is a helpful first port of call for those choosing a mortgage, savings account, credit card or other financial product. By inputting only two or three details, visitors to the site can do a search for a personal loan, for example, from Moneynet's database of 35 providers. The search results will give details of a loan deal which matches the requirements and a contact number for the provider.

A must for would-be stock market investors is Motley Fool's site. The creators' stated aim is to "to serve you, to teach you -- and to have a heck of a lot of fun along the way". The discussion boards are one of the main features of this light-hearted site. They are useful for getting recommendations or warnings about diverse financial products.

The site also has a tool to keep track of the value of your investment portfolio, articles on various investment and personal finance topics, share prices and news.

But users of any website should be wary of acting on investment advice seen on a bulletin board, says Jeremy King. Not only could the e-mailer be attempting to ramp the share price of a holding he or she owns, but the tip could simply be based on poor quality information, he says.

One of the best financial information sites is Interactive Investor, which gives a broad range of data for both first-time and experienced investors. It offers a step-by-step guide to putting your money in unit trusts, for example, going from the basics. Particularly useful is the portal's sector risk guide, which explains clearly how one type of investment fund carries a higher risk, and exactly what this means.

And for the seasoned investor, the site gives detailed information on quoted shares. Not only are prices available, but also several graphs charting the stock's past performance and a database of news stories relating to the share.

For the serious private investor, a new service, MoneyGuru, claims to offer access to the level of research and information normally only available to institutional investors. Though visitors to the site can view some information free, for its full service the information provider charges a monthly subscription of £11.95.

For that they can read analysis on companies around the world and on industry sectors written by MoneyGuru's in-house team of analysts.

But for anyone just starting to use the web for money information, Find is a good first stop, giving links to hundreds of financial services homepages.

www.sort.co.uk

www.find.co.uk

www.moneyguru.co.uk

www.moneynet.co.uk

www.mandg.co.uk

www.johnsonfry.co.uk

www.fool.co.uk

www.iii.co.uk

www.ifadirect.co.uk

Independent Partners; request a free guide on NISAs from Hargreaves Lansdown

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