The number of UK private shareholders grew by a third last year, a phenomenal rise generated by a wave of former building societies issuing free shares. This gave millions a taste of stock market action, and the Stock Exchange's campaign is aimed at getting us hooked on the share-dealing habit.
But share dealing comes with several health warnings, especially for first-time investors. Some smaller share brokers came unstuck in the building society conversions last year, and the popularity of the Thomson Holidays flotation caused massive problems. Share dealers were swamped, and either didn't handle paperwork properly or were unable to cope with the volume of phone calls. Even the UK division of Charles Schwab, the US broker, which used to trade under the name ShareLink, couldn't cope with the calls and had to be relaunched after extra investment in its telephone call centre.
This seems to have worked: when the Independent on Sunday tested share dealers' answering services for this article (see box below) Charles Schwab was the only firm that answered the phone with a named operator speaking directly to the customer. All the others operate automated touch-tone queuing systems. But first-time share dealers need to be aware that there are occasional problems when you simply buy and sell over the phone. This process, where a discount stockbroker simply carries out your orders, is known as an "execution-only" deal.
Last month Minaxi Patel of Leicester sold 200 shares in the Alliance & Leicester, using the A&L's own share-dealing service carried out on its behalf by Barclays Stockbrokers. Ms Patel gave her details verbally to the dealing service, but says the bank never confirmed these in writing. A&L says a letter confirming the details was sent to Ms Patel. "We assume the details are correct if we don't hear from a customer," said an A&L spokeswoman.
But the bank details were recorded wrongly and another bank account was credited with the pounds 1,000 proceeds. Unlike some dealers, which tape all calls, A&L only tapes a proportion of phone instructions and was unable to verify who made the mistake.
Ms Patel had already committed herself to expenditure in anticipation of the money being received, and had to take out a short-term loan. "I made numerous phone calls chasing up the money, and was given different information each time." Ms Patel says she was told that her bank account would be credited with the sale proceeds only if and when the amount wrongly credited to another account was returned to the A&L.
After the intervention of the Independent on Sunday, the amount due to her was credited to her account and her share dealing fee waived. An A&L spokeswoman said: "It was her word against ours, so we gave the customer the benefit of the doubt."
Most share brokers will not act on a verbal instruction from a new client without written confirmation of personal and bank account details. It is tedious, but the more information you give the less chance of a mistake.
Brokers require the client's name and address, daytime phone number and share transaction details, but some ask for further information, partly to
prevent money laundering. Barclays asks for former addresses and national insurance number. NatWest confirms account details with the customer's bank before crediting an account.
Share dealing fees vary significantly (see table). Some banks, such as Bank of Scotland and Royal Bank of Scotland, only act for existing banking customers. Not all deal in any share - Abbey National only deals in the "popular" stocks, mostly privatisations and financial firms. Halifax is to launch a general share-dealing service later this year: it only handles its own shares at the moment. NatWest and Midland run "share shops" in larger branches, and phone services.
Gug Kyriacou, an Abbey National spokesman, says the onus is on customers to ensure personal details are correct, and that it will act on verbal instructions without written confirmation. If no letter confirming details is received within two days of phone instructions, the customer should alert the bank.
Richard Hunter, head of dealing services at NatWest, says the new investor should choose a broker carefully. "Don't look at the minimum commission charge alone, look at reliability as well. The stability of the name is important, and accessibility. Having a phone dealing service is all very well, but you must be able to get through."
Also consider any extra services. NatWest offers a new monthly investment magazine for pounds 40 a year. Midland will give the views of several analysts on any given share, free of charge.
The Stock Exchange is offering easily accessible information on share performance as part of its campaign. It has a website (www.shareaware.co.uk) and phone information line (0171-797 4444). Both will provide background information on share dealing and a full list of stockbrokers and their services.
Some large share-dealing services
Alliance & Leicester (0990 168351): pounds 17.50 minimum fee; 1.5% commission on transactions up to pounds 5,000, 0.85% on transactions between pounds 5,000 and pounds 15,000, 0.5% over pounds 15,000.
Barclays Stockbrokers (0345 776776): pounds 17.50 minimum fee; 1.5% commission on transactions up to pounds 5,000, 0.85% between pounds 5,000 and pounds 15,000, 0.5% over pounds 15,000.
Charles Schwab (0121 200 2242 or www.schwab-worldwide.com): pounds 20 minimum fee (pounds 15 minimum for deals on the web), pounds 75 maximum; 1% commission on transactions up to pounds 2,500 (0.9% on the web), 0.75% between pounds 2,500 and pounds 5,000, 0.1% over pounds 5,000.
Lloyds TSB (0345 888100): pounds 25 minimum fee, pounds 150 max; 1.5% commission on transactions up to pounds 75,000, 0.2% over pounds 75,000; lower fees for gilts and the bank's own shares.
Midland (0800 100250): pounds 20 minimum fee, pounds 150 max; 1.5% commission on transactions up to pounds 7,000, 0.55% between pounds 7,000 and pounds 15,000.
NatWest (0171-895 5018): pounds 20 minimum fee; 1% commission on transactions up to pounds 4,000, 0.1% commission after that.
Prices quoted are for execution-only deals, which means the broker does not give advice on which shares to purchase. Advice is available from most of the dealers for a higher fee. NatWest's advisory fees begin at pounds 35 per transaction, Lloyds TSB's at pounds 100 per year. Prices also assume that customers will handle their own share certificates. Purchases are subject to 0.5% stamp duty.