Tuesday, October 16, 2007

A cheap mark

Have you ever been taken advantage of financially?

I guess this could run the gamut of a freeloading friend to being mugged. There are a lot of gray areas in between, and I’ve experienced quite a few. I think these actions informed my financial philosophy quite a bit, so I’m going to dig into them a little bit.

The first incident I recall happened when I was probably around 9 years old. I decided to have a lemonade stand. As I was sitting out front, two teenage girls stopped by and convinced me to take some Canadian coins because they were worth more than American money. When I happily told my mom about my bounty, she gently explained that in America, Canadian money was perfectly worthless. I remember being heartbroken that two pretty teenagers could be so mean as to lie to a little girl and essentially steal lemonade from her. The lesson I learned was not to be so trusting of someone who tried to convince me of something without going to other sources first.

In junior high, I was taken advantage of for most of the year. I had just entered the seventh grade and one of my classmates was pregnant (she may have actually been an eighth grader in remedial classes, and I know for a fact she was a few years older than me). This girl started asking me for my lunch money, whatever I could spare, for doctor visits for the baby. She was clearly poor and I felt so sorry for her. I’d usually give her $2 of the three my mom gave me for a hot lunch, or whatever extra I could spare. I just couldn’t say no. I kept this a secret for about half the year, until a teacher confronted me (I still don’t know how they knew she’d been coming to me for money) and told me not to give her any more because she was using it for drugs. I was angry about being lied to, but this girl never came to me for money again and I never confronted her about it. Her baby was born more than a month premature but survived. All I took away from this lesson were horrific eating habits—the $1 I kept of my lunch money would buy me a pack of knockoff oreos and a chocolate milk, and I literally lived off that or other vending machine food until my junior year of high school. Luckily, I have an excellent metabolism, but just because I look healthy doesn’t mean I am, and I’m still combating a massive sugar addiction in adulthood.

I’ve had several friends who’ve borrowed money from me and never paid me back, or “non-smoking” friends who’d rather bum off me than buy their own packs and admit their dirty secret. I was in a relationship for many years where my boyfriend couldn’t hold down a job or manage money, where I ended up paying for almost everything and in a few rare cases loaning him money.

In college, I got suckered into PrePaid Legal, an MLM scheme which is probably for the most part harmless EXCEPT that the girl who brought me in ended up breaking into my apartment and living there for a week while I was on vacation, and then joyriding in my car. When I began legal proceedings against her, not only did PrePaid Legal’s pre-paid legal assistance NOT help me out, but they wouldn’t move me to a different chain without my having to repay the initiation fees. From this, I learned to tune out anyone talking about a “great new opportunity” faster than a monkey on a banana split.

I also got most of the way through one of those “complete 10 offers and get a free $500 gift card” before losing half the required paperwork during a move. Those things aren’t scams if you can keep on top of them; I know several people who got gift cards, a large screen TV and a laptop from doing them. It’s not *free* but it’s a good deal for the uber-organized and anal-retentive. I typically am just such a person, but the move threw me off my game. No real lesson here, I guess—I’d be willing to go through this again in a year when I’m eligible if the prize was good enough. I guess the lesson would be to keep all these papers somewhere super safe instead of moving them between boroughs in the middle of it.

I was robbed on Christmas night in 2003 while moving to New York. Almost everything I owned was stolen out of the back of my mother’s van in a guarded hotel garage, including my passport and social security card, 90% of my clothes, and my entire CD collection. I’ve never heard anything from the police, although someone found my passport in a trash can two years later and mailed it back to me. I hassled with the insurance company to be reimbursed for at least part of the cost of replacing everything, and the experience taught me to always have renter’s insurance here in New York.

My identity was stolen earlier this summer, literally the day after I moved. Someone hacked into my ebay, paypal and gmail accounts. Ebay caught it before they were able to do any damage and I was able to get all three accounts back to normal fairly quickly. But then two weeks later, bogus charges started showing up on one of my debit cards, to the ultimate tune of $1,200. Again, I caught this quick enough to only be temporarily out $25 until the investigation was done and I was credited the money. Both of these lessons taught me to be super careful—I’m already quite skeptical of phishing emails but apparently fell for one of them. I have no idea how my debit card number was taken or if the two instances were related, but the timing seems suspicious. For once, I was glad of my compulsive email checking and constant monitoring of my checking account, for without these habits, I wouldn’t have caught the situations in time to mitigate as much of the damage as I did.

My point in this exercise is to show why I am as diligent about checking my financial picture as I am, and also why I can be perceived as a little stingy with money. I don’t loan money anymore, to anyone. Occasionally, I will make a gift of money to a friend who needs it, but I do it not expecting to be paid back. If I give a gift, I am hardly being taken advantage of. I’m suspicious of anyone asking for money on the train or on the street, although when I worked at Starbucks I knew several of the homeless regulars, and I have given them money when my own situation improved. I think my overall outlook is once burned, twice shy, and a couple of bad situations early on left me very wary of being taken advantage of again. Perhaps I am too jaded and hold my wallet too close to the vest—but it’s a risk I’m willing to take for now.

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