Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC) recently got slapped with a $1 million fine, and the reason for it should make you smile: Brokerages and investment services companies have to tell you when their brokers run into trouble.

The fine came from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, which oversees roughly 4,550 brokerage firms, 163,500 branch offices, and 631,110 registered securities representatives. Within 30 days of learning about something that belongs on a broker's record, such as a customer complaint, an investigation, or arbitration, a brokerage must report that by updating its records with FINRA. Wells Fargo seems to have been very late in updating many of its broker registration forms.

Do your due diligence
It can often feel as if you're floundering about on your own when you're dealing with the financial world, but you're not. There are communities of like-minded investors, such as here in Fooldom, where you can learn and discuss.

And when you're looking for a good brokerage or want to investigate a broker you might work with, you can use FINRA's BrokerCheck.

When it comes to checking up on brokers, FINRA isn't the only game in town. The Securities and Exchange Commission maintains a searchable database of information on investment advisors. And just last month, the folks at BrightScope launched a financial advisor directory that aims to eventually offer much more information than FINRA does -- including broker performance records.

That can be a big boon for investors, because while it may be comforting to know that your broker hasn't been caught doing anything illegal, he may still be lousy at his job. Right now BrightScope offers more limited information, but it's still instructive for us as investors.

Informative details
For example, BrightScope says that E*TRADE Financial's (Nasdaq: ETFC) capital management division sports an average of $178,000 per reported customer account, according to SEC filings. That's good to know, because if you have limited assets and are signing up with a firm that focuses on the wealthy, you may be in the wrong place. The report for AllianceBernstein (NYSE: AB), for example, reveals an estimated average account balance of $6 million. Sometimes, it's good to deal with firms that work mainly with people like yourself.

As an investor looking at financial services companies as possible investments for your portfolio, this kind of information can also help you, showing where a firm is getting -- and can get -- its money.

The bottom line, though, is to not get too excited -- yet. There seem to be some kinks in BrightScope's system, which is drawing mainly from government filings. Widespread reports of errors have led BrightScope to permit advisors to revise some of their listed information. Thus, while I'm interested in perusing the listings, I'm holding out for more, and more accurate, data in the future. It's good to know that it's on the way.

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