These days, we are all accustomed to doing almost everything online. There cannot be too many of us left who are nervous about using a credit card online, for example. Doing business online is a way to save time, money and headaches. Investing through online brokerage accounts promises much the same benefits.However, when it comes to investing offshore, borders still pose a significant psychological barrier. There is no longer any real need to have your online brokerage account in the same country you live in, but it seems investors are still reticent about opening brokerage accounts in foreign countries.An increasing number of financial service providers are offering cross-border online investment services. This trend has caught on more in Europe than in North America, with larger online brokerages like Saxo Bank and Swissquote offering services specifically tailored to investors from outside their home countries.However North American investors are also becoming more adventurous, opening more and more accounts with foreign banks and brokerages. Such accounts may be opened as individual US citizens or, more commonly, through offshore corporations or trust structures designed to provide an additional level of privacy. However, the main reason for accessing these international markets is to benefit from more profitable cross-border investment opportunities, and diversify risk by spreading their portfolios across different institutions in different base currencies.These sophisticated investors have potential access not just to a wider range of investment opportunities – but to simplicity, tax savings, and greater control over their portfolios. There is also the opportunity to save money, by gaining access through discount brokerage models to exchanges that would otherwise have to be traded by telephone through far-away correspondent brokerages. The current economic climate means a lot of investors love the idea of being able to keep a much closer eagle eye on their internationally-diversified portfolios. But, there remains a concern. Is investing through online offshore brokerage accounts safe?Are Offshore Online Bank and Brokerage Accounts Safe?In short, the answer is yes, provided you apply normal common sense precautions. The internet allows you to buy and sell foreign securities through overseas brokerage accounts with just as much ease and security as paying your home electricity bill – and in many cases, much greater security.The first of these precautions is to invest via a reputable firm. Do some due diligence on the company behind the service. Just as you should at home (but many people don’t) check references, make sure the broker is registered and in good standing with the relevant regulators, speak with them in person and find out what experience they have. You should also enquire about the security arrangements on their site, and what protection they offer in the case of DDOS and other types of hack attacks. Many offshore brokerages are actually fully licensed banks, which makes them more secure and makes due diligence easier.Once you have decided where to open your brokerage account, it is important that you you’re your own precautions to ensure that nobody else will be able to access your account without your permission. Make sure that your security software, like anti-virus and firewalls, are properly installed, functioning and up to date. Consider using an encrypted VPN solution, especially if you are partial to doing your trading from a laptop connected via wifi, which is notoriously insecure. Also remember that just like those anti-phishing warnings from online banking at home, offshore brokerages will not email asking for you to confirm your details. If you receive any correspondence via email, confirm it by phoning the company directly before clicking on any links or taking any action. Try to get to know a single executive in the brokerage who will recognize your voice over the telephone.What Services Do You Need?Just like at home, overseas investing services can vary wildly in terms of costs and features. Even within the same brokerage, there are often different packages available. Fees may differ significantly depending what features, information and access you request.If you are considering investing in European bonds, unit trusts, ISAs or funds then you probably will not need access to the type of ‘offshore day trading’ account that permits you to buy and sell individual stocks in real time. A so-called ‘fund supermarket’ type account offered by a European bank would suit you in this case. But be sure to check which products of which fund managers are available, and whether the broker is prepared to negotiate fees or rebate commissions they receive from fund managers (many will, especially on larger amounts, but only if you ask them)Other banks and brokerages will offer discretionary management of your portfolio. This is suitable for investors who don’t want to have to watch their accounts every day, and who are looking for more of a Swiss-style ‘private banking’ feel in their brokerage. Having access to quality investment advice is of great importance in this case – so ask what kind of management skills the bank has access to in-house. Larger banks have more expertise, but they may be busy chasing bigger fish. Smaller boutique private banks and investment managers often offer a much higher level of personal service.In turn these various institutions will often target different types of investor. The more questions you ask your broker or banker before you get started, the more benefits you will obtain from the account you finally choose. It’s called KYB (“Know Your Banker”) and is equally important to investors as KYC (“Know Your Customer”) is to bankers.If you take the time to do your homework, investing offshore and online is not only safe but it can be very profitable, cutting costs, diversifying risk, and taking charge of your own future. Are you ready for the challenge?
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