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Many workers are misled about 401(k)s

WASHINGTON — Many workers are getting false or misleading information about options for their 401(k) accounts when they change jobs, congressional auditors said Wednesday in a report that urged regulators to offer consumers clearer guidance about their retirement money.

The Government Accountability Office found that financial firms often encourage workers to roll over a 401(k) into an individual retirement account, or IRA, even when that might not be the best option.

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The report said the guidance workers currently receive is either too complex or too general, leaving them vulnerable to financial firms that may try to steer them toward IRAs with higher fees.

‘‘Labor regulations do not ensure that 401(k) plans provide complete and timely information to participants on all their distribution options,’’ the report said.

Workers changing jobs also have the option of leaving retirement funds in the previous employer’s plan, moving funds to a new employer’s 401(k), or cashing out the plan — which incurs hefty taxes.

GAO undercover investigators contacted 30 firms and reported that seven incorrectly said their IRA was free or that there were no fees to open or maintain an IRA ­account.

The report also said that five of the 10 large firm websites that GAO reviewed claimed their IRAs were free.

Fee information on the websites was hard to find and understand, the report found.

Democratic lawmakers said the report shows a need for stronger consumer protections in the growing 401(k) rollover market.

Senators Tom Harkin of Iowa and Bill Nelson of Florida, along with Representative George Miller of California, called on the Obama administration to modify rules in order to protect consumers from receiving advice that could be biased.

‘‘Service providers should not be permitted to provide incomplete information or steer workers to company investment products,’’ the lawmakers said in a letter to the Labor­ and Treasury departments.

The Investment Company Institute, a trade association for mutual fund companies, insisted that financial company affiliates that manage employer retirement plans already offer workers ‘‘full information’’ about their rollover options, including the option to keep assets in a current 401(k) plan.

‘‘The mutual fund industry supports these efforts and clear disclosure of all fees and expenses in connection with any rollover of assets from a 401(k) plan to an IRA,’’ said the institute’s spokeswoman, ­Rachel McTague.

Rollovers are now the largest source of contributions to IRAs, the GAO report said.

More than 90 percent of funds flowing into traditional IRAs between 1996 and 2008 came from rollovers, with the vast majority coming from employer-sponsored retirement plans.

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