"I am almost 78 years old and in desperate need of advice," the letter read.

The woman had sold her home for a nice profit and turned the money over to a stockbroker to try to increase her annual income from $18,000 to $23,000.

"Instead," she continued, "my income is now down to $14,000."

Is there some kind of "watchdog committee for complaints in the brokerage business?" she wondered, raising a question often asked by investors.

There are established ways to resolve disputes with securities brokers. For example, if she had specified conservative income-producing investments and the broker had used her money for speculative trading, she has a legitimate complaint.

Such differences often are resolved through the New York Stock Exchange, the National Association of Securities Dealers or the Securities and Exchange Commission.

A letter to the NYSE, the NASD or the SEC could start the resolution procedure. The complaint might wind up before a board of arbitration, whose decisions are binding and final.

While the SEC is an agency of the U.S. government, the NYSE and NASD are private industry groups that regulate their members.

But all three work cooperatively to try to keep the securities business honest and to right any clear-cut wrongs on the part of individuals or firms in the industry.

Early this month, NASD released one of its periodic reports of disciplinary actions against brokers and brokerage firms. Its listing of 70 actions reflected a wide range of misuses of customers' money.

American Wallstreet Securities, a brokerage firm in Tampa, Fla., was fined $14,000 for "unfairness" to customers -- marking up from 20 percent to 88 percent above market value the prices of over-the-counter securities.

Maryanne Conley, a broker in South Weymouth, Mass., was fined $75,000 and banned from the brokerage business for forging a customer's signature on a $20,000 insurance policy loan authorization and using the money for herself.

Gene Nils Flannes, a Hot Springs, Ark., broker, was fined $30,000 and banned from the business for taking $3.9 million from 119 customers who had intended that the money be used to buy mutual funds.

Alan Eugene Stark, a broker in Boca Raton, Fla., was fined $10,000 and suspended from the business for 20 days for buying and selling securities for customers without their permission.

Ronald K. Zur, a broker in Park Ridge, Ill., was barred from the business and fined $30,000 for pocketing $5,125 that a customer gave him for stock purchases.

William C. Reese, a Fontana, Calif., broker, was fined $66,000 and banned from the brokerage business for misappropriating $6,000 of a customer's funds.

Those are a few examples of recent NASD disciplinary actions. They are reminders that there are "police" who patrol the investment business and look after the customers' interests.

Some cases are referred to state or federal authorities for possible criminal action. While their enforcement and disciplinary powers are limited, NASD and NYSE are good starting points for reporting suspected abuses by brokers.

The NASD's compliance division is at 1735 K St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20006. The NYSE's is at 11 Wall St., New York, N.Y. 10005. The SEC is at Judiciary Plaza, 450 Fifth St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20549.

But to minimize the necessity for contacting the watchdogs, heed the advice the sergeant on the old "Hill Street Blues" TV show repeatedly gave police under his jurisdiction. It applies nicely to money management:

"Hey, let's be careful out there."