If you do an internet search on forex broker scams, the number of results is staggering. While the forex market is slowly becoming more regulated, there are many unscrupulous brokers who should not be in business.

When you're looking to trade forex, it's important to identify brokers that are reliable and viable, and to avoid the ones that are not. In order to sort out the strong brokers from the weak, and the reputable ones from those with shady dealings, we must go through a series of steps before depositing a large amount of capital with a broker. Trading is hard enough in itself, but when a broker is implementing practices that work against the trader, making a profit can be nearly impossible. (For forex trading tips, check out "Top 4 Things Successful Forex Traders Do.")

Separating Forex Fact from Fiction

When researching a potential forex broker, traders must learn to separate fact from fiction. For instance, faced with all sorts of forums posts, articles and disgruntled comments about a broker, we could assume that all traders fail and never make a profit. The traders that fail to make profits then post content online that blames the broker (or some other outside influence) for their own failed strategies.

One common complaint from traders is that a broker was intentionally trying to cause a loss in the form of statements such as, "As soon as I placed the trade, the direction of the market reversed" or "The broker stop hunted my positions;" and "I always had slippage on my orders, and never in my favor." These types of experiences are common among traders and it is quite possible that the broker is not at fault.

It is also entirely possible that new forex traders fail to trade with a tested strategy or trading plan. Instead, they make trades based on psychology (e.g., if a trader feels the market has to move in one direction or the other) and there is essentially a 50% chance they will be correct. When the rookie trader enters a position, they are often entering when their emotions are waning; experienced traders are aware of these junior tendencies and step in, taking the trade the other way. This befuddles new traders and leaves them feeling that the market – or their brokers – are out to get them and take their individual profits. Most of the time this is not the case, it is simply a failure by the trader to understand market dynamics.

On occasion, losses are the broker's fault. This can occur when a broker attempts to rack up trading commissions at the client's expense. There have been reports of brokers arbitrarily moving quoted rates to trigger stop orders when other brokers' rates have not moved to that price. Luckily for traders, this type of situation is an outlier and not likely to occur. One must remember that trading is usually not a zero-sum game, and brokers primarily make commissions with increased trading volumes. Overall, it is in the best interest of brokers to have long-term clients who trade regularly and thus sustain capital or make a profit.

The slippage issue can often be attributed to behavioral economics. It is common practice for inexperienced traders to panic; they fear missing a move, so they hit their buy key; or they fear losing more and so they hit the sell key. In volatile exchange rate environments, the broker cannot ensure that an order will be executed at the desired price. This results in sharp movements and slippage. The same is true for stop or limit orders. Some brokers guarantee stop and limit order fills, while others do not. Even in more transparent markets, slippage occurs, markets move and we don't always get the price we want. (Learn about different forex trading strategies in "Place Forex Orders Properly.")

Communication Between Broker and Trader Is Key

Real problems can begin to develop when communication between a trader and their broker begins to break down. If a trader does not receive responses from their broker or the broker provides vague answers to a trader's questions, these are common red flags that a broker may not be looking out for the client's best interest.

Issues of this nature should be resolved and explained to the trader and the broker should also be helpful and display good customer relations. One of the most detrimental issues that may arise between a broker and a trader is the trader's inability to withdraw money from an account.

Conduct Broker Research to Protect Yourself

Protecting yourself from unscrupulous brokers in the first place is ideal. The following steps should help:

  • Do an online search for reviews of the broker. A generic internet search can provide insights on whether negative comments could just be a disgruntled trader or something more serious. A good supplement to this type of search is the BrokerCheck from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), which will indicate whether there are outstanding legal actions against the broker. And if appropriate, gain a clearer understanding of the U.S. regulations for forex brokers.
  • Make sure there are no complaints about not being able to withdraw funds. If there are, contact the user if possible and ask them about their experience.
  • Read through all the fine print of the documents when opening an account. Incentives to open account can often be used against the trader when attempting to withdraw funds. For instance, if a trader deposits $10,000 and gets a $2,000 bonus, and then the trader loses money and attempts to withdraw some remaining funds, the broker may say that they cannot withdraw the bonus funds. Reading the fine print will help make sure you understand all contingencies in these types of instances.
  • If you are satisfied with your research on a particular broker, open a mini account or an account with a small amount of capital. Trade it for a month or more and then attempt a withdrawal. If everything has gone well, it should be relatively safe to deposit more funds. If you have problems, attempt to discuss them with the broker. If that fails, move on and post a detailed account of your experience online so others can learn from your experience.

[Note: It should be pointed out that a broker's size cannot be used to determine the level of risk involved. While larger brokers grow by providing a certain standard of service, the 2008-2009 financial crisis taught us that a big or popular firm isn't always safe. (If this seems a little over your head, check out our Forex Walkthrough Charts, Economics, Trading, or you could start at Beginner.)]

Is Your Forex Broker Churning Commissions?

Brokers or planners who are paid commissions for buying and selling securities can sometimes succumb to the temptation to effect transactions simply for the purpose of generating a commission. Those who do this excessively can be found guilty of churning – a specific term coined by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) that denotes when a broker places trades for a purpose other than to benefit the client. Those who are found guilty of this can face fines, reprimands, suspension, dismissal, disbarment or even criminal sanctions in some cases.

Churning Defined

The SEC defines churning in the following manner: "Churning occurs when a broker engages in excessive buying and selling of securities in a customer’s account chiefly to generate commissions that benefit the broker. For churning to occur, the broker must exercise control over the investment decisions in the customer’s account, such as through a formal written discretionary agreement. Frequent in-and-out purchases and sales of securities that don’t appear necessary to fulfill the customer’s investment goals may be evidence of churning. Churning is illegal and unethical. It can violate SEC Rule 15c1-7 and other securities laws." (For more, see "4 Dishonest Broker Tactics and How to Avoid Them.")

The key to remember here is that the trades that are placed are not increasing your account value. If you have given your broker trading authority over your account, then the possibility of churning can only exist if they are trading your account heavily and your balance either remains the same over time or else decreases in value. Of course, it is possible that your broker may be genuinely attempting to grow your assets, but you need to find out exactly what they are doing and why. If you are calling the shots and the broker is following your instructions, then that cannot be classified as churning. (For more, see: Is Your Broker Ripping You Off?)

Evaluate Your Trades

One of the clearest signs of churning can be when you see buy and sell trades for securities that don’t fit your investment objectives. For example, if your objective is to generate current stable income, then you should not be seeing buy and sell trades on your statements for small-cap equity or technology stocks or funds. Churning with derivatives such as put and call options can be even harder to spot, as these instruments can be used to accomplish a variety of objectives. But buying and selling puts and calls should in most cases only be happening if you have a high risk tolerance. Selling calls and puts can generate current income as long as it is done prudently. (For more, see "What Is Your Risk Tolerance?")

How the Regulators Evaluate Churning

An arbitration panel will consider several factors when they conduct hearings to determine whether a broker has been churning an account. They will examine the trades that were placed in light of the client’s level of education, experience and sophistication as well as the nature of the client’s relationship with the broker. They will also weigh the number of solicited versus unsolicited trades and the dollar amount of commissions that have been generated as compared to the client’s gains or losses as a result of these trades. (For more, see "When a Dispute with Your Broker Calls for Arbitration.")

There are times when it may seem like your broker may be churning your account, but this may not necessarily be the case. If you have questions about this and feel uneasy about what your advisor is doing with your money, then don’t hesitate to consult a securities attorney or file a complaint on the SEC's website.

What If You're Already Stuck With a Bad Broker?

Unfortunately, options are very limited at this stage. However, there are a few things you can do:

  • Read through all documents to make sure that your broker is actually in the wrong. If you have missed something or failed to read the documents you signed, you may have to assume the blame.
  • Discuss the course of action you will take if the broker does not adequately answer your questions or provide a withdrawal. Steps may include posting comments online, reporting the broker to FINRA or the appropriate regulatory body in your country.

The Bottom Line

While traders may blame brokers for their losses, there are in fact times when brokers are at fault. A trader needs to be thorough and conduct research on a broker before opening an account and if the research turns up positive for the broker, then a small deposit should be made, followed by a few trades and then a withdrawal. If this goes well, then another deposit can be made. However, if you are already in a problematic situation, you should verify that the broker is conducting illegal activity (such as churning), attempt to have our questions answered and if all else fails, report the person to the SEC, FINRA or another regulatory body that could enforce action against them.

For further reading, take a look at our Forex Walkthrough.