12 Months of Silly, Serious Money Mistakes

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2013 Guys Choice Awards - Show
Frank Micelotta/Invision/APWhen Burt Reynolds announced that he was auctioning his memorabilia, the media cited his financial problems. He said he's simplifying his life.
By Geoff Williams

When you make resolutions and plan and budget for what you hope will happen in the next year, do you ever ask yourself what went wrong this year? Why did it seem like there was never enough money? What resulted in that overdraft fee -- or onslaught of fees? Answering questions like that, and making sure you don't repeat your mistakes, can make for a better future.

With that in mind, let's take a look at some personal finance stories that made the news in 2014 and see what, if anything, we can learn from them to make 2015 an even better year.


In the waning months of 2013, hackers broke into Target's (TGT) system and put 100 million customers' identities at risk by stealing credit and debit card data. While it was a big news story then, it was an even bigger one in January. Also this month, unrelated to Target: The Better Business Bureau warns that credit card scammers were charging stolen credit cards for tiny amounts of money, with $9.84 being a common charge. Criminals evidently believed cardholders wouldn't notice the charges, and that credit card companies wouldn't come after crooks for such small amounts.

Lesson learned: Complacency doesn't pay. Monitor your credit card at least on a monthly basis, and for your bank account, weekly or daily isn't a bad idea.


The U.S. Treasury and Justice Department allow banks to provide financial services to marijuana-related businesses that are operating legally within states where marijuana is permitted. Meanwhile, Switzerland's second-largest bank, Credit Suisse, makes news because billions of dollars in U.S. taxes are going unpaid due to some wealthy Americans allegedly using secret Credit Suisse bank accounts.

Lesson learned: It's always smart to be on good terms with the Internal Revenue Service. And, boy, do times change. Years ago, the person in trouble with the law was buying marijuana off the street; now, it's the wildly rich person with a Swiss bank account on Easy Street.


In Athens, Georgia, a man named Steven Fields goes into a First Citizens Bank (FCNCA) and deposits $31,000 into an account. Ten days later, that man contacts the bank and asks where his money is. The bank discovers the teller deposited it into the wrong account, that of an 18-year-old with the same name. Then comes a not-so-shocking revelation: The 18-year-old spent $26,000 of that $31,000. Even less shocking: Everyone hires lawyers.

Lesson learned: Once again, monitor your bank account, especially if you've just made a seriously large deposit. Banks make errors, too.


In New York City, three roommates find $41,000 in cash stuffed in envelopes and hidden in an old couch they purchased from the Salvation Army. Instead of throwing a big party or renting an island, they track down the owner of the money since her name is in one of the envelopes. It turns out to be the life savings of an elderly woman, who gives the roommates $1,000 reward.

Lesson learned: A bank really is the safest place for your money. The couch was donated to charity without the sofa owner's consent, and if that sounds like an old sitcom plot, indeed, a "Three's Company" episode covered this ground in 1977.


Toronto resident Jordan Axani books cheap around-the-world air tickets for himself and then-girlfriend Elizabeth Gallagher -- tickets with a strict no-transfer policy. That becomes a problem when the relationship ends later in the year. Axani can't get a refund and doesn't want Gallagher's ticket to go to waste, so he posts on the social media website Reddit in November, eventually offering the free trip to a woman with the same name as his ex-girlfriend. It's a platonic trip; he ends up choosing a fellow Canadian, who, as it turns out, has a boyfriend.

Lesson learned: Be extra careful when making an expensive purchase with a no-refund policy. And if you have to eat the costs of such a trip, a little ingenuity may result in some return on investment.


Several months after Target's debacle recedes into the news, Sam's Club (WMT) becomes the first large U.S. retailer to unveil a credit card with a microchip embedded. These cards are extremely difficult for crooks to counterfeit.

Lesson learned: Sam's Club undoubtedly hopes the lesson is to shop at Sam's Club. For everyone else, these microchips are expected to become standard in most credit cards in 2015.


Roy Cockrum, a 58-year-old actor and former monk in Knoxville, Tennessee, wins $259.9 million in a Powerball jackpot. He claims a lump sum of $115 million. Cockrum, who had formerly taken a vow of poverty, says he will donate most of the money to support the performing arts. By December, he makes several charitable donations, including $1 million to a university in his mother's name.

Lesson learned: Between the New Yorkers returning $41,000 and Cockrum, the world probably contains more good and ethical people than you might think.


Megan Bratten, a Missouri resident and single mother of five, has her van stolen from a Kmart (SHLD) parking lot and sends text messages to the thief, begging him to return her vehicle. "OMG car thief people can you just give me my van back," read one of her texts. She even points out that her van leaks transmission fluid. Finally, the thief sends a text, explaining he is an unemployed dad trying to feed his kids. He texts her directions for where to find her now-abandoned van, which he filled up with transmission fluid.

Lesson learned: It's often said that if you feel a financial institution is ripping you off, try reasoning with them, and you may get the problem resolved. Apparently, this also occasionally works with individuals who are ripping you off.


A Bankrate.com survey of the 10 biggest banks and savings and loan associations in 25 of the largest markets shows that out-of-network ATM fees have surged, with the new high being $4.35 per transaction. Overdraft fees have also climbed, with the average fee being $32.74.

Lesson learned: Try your best to use ATMs within your own network and not accrue overdraft fees. You knew that already, of course, but it never hurts to get a reminder.


One of France's largest banks teams up with Twitter (TWTR). For the first time, consumers can tweet person-to-person money transfers -- without the sender knowing what bank the recipient uses. The bank will collect 1 percent or 2 percent of the transfer, and this is done by the sender tweeting the recipient's Twitter name, the amount and up to approximately 500 euros. But you have to not mind your followers seeing that you're sending or receiving money.

Lesson learned: Someday, once Americans can get in on tweeting such financial transactions, it's going to be harder and harder for deadbeats to use that tired, old excuse, "The check is in the mail."


Actor Burt Reynolds, 78, decides to auction a lot of his memorabilia, including the Trans Am he rode in the "Smokey and the Bandit" movie. The media cites Reynolds' past financial problems in explaining why the auction is occurring. Reynolds denies financial woes and says he is simplifying his life.

Lesson learned: Celebrities' financial problems, real or not, are a heck of a lot more interesting than ours.


T-Mobile (TMUS) settles a lawsuit with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, which asserted that the wireless carrier had been placing unauthorized third-party charges on customers' bills. These are small charges, like $9.99, in which the customers apparently received text messages providing celebrity gossip and horoscope information. T-Mobile, earlier in the year, called the assertions "unfounded." Which must be why the wireless carrier agrees to refund $67.5 million to customers and millions more in penalties and fees.

Lesson learned: Complacency doesn't pay. Monitor every bill you receive and trust no one -- except maybe New Yorkers and the occasional van thief.
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