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Battle with Bank of America provides a 'Wonderful' lesson

Battle with Bank of America provides a 'Wonderful' lesson
Jimmy Hawkins, 74, in his L.A. home. He fought with BofA over an overdraft involving his 99-year-old mother’s checking account. (Glenn Koenig/ Los Angeles Times)

There's trouble in Bedford Falls.

Jimmy Hawkins, who played little Tommy Bailey in the 1946 classic "It's a Wonderful Life," told me this week that he was battling Bank of America over an overdraft involving his 99-year-old mother's checking account.

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Admittedly, this wasn't a big deal. But how could I turn my back at this particular time of year on someone from the greatest Christmas movie ever?

Besides, there is a valuable lesson here: Stay on top of your bank accounts.

Two lessons, actually: Don't be afraid to stand up for fair treatment.

OK, three lessons: Corporate service people need to prevent minor misunderstandings from becoming major messes by stepping up their game.

Hawkins, 74, was angry. On the same day that his mom's account received $100 from her BofA credit card to cover an overdraft of $10.65, her statement shows it received a deposit of $1,882 from Social Security.

Hawkins said he was happy to pay the $100 credit card bill. But the $10.65 overdraft shouldn't be his mom's responsibility because he believed the Social Security payment arrived in time to cover it.

"The bank won't even discuss that," Hawkins said. "They say these are the rules and they want their money."

Credit card late fees started piling up as he dickered with the bank for months. He said his mom eventually was on the hook for about $300 and her credit score probably took a hit, which wouldn't be the worst thing that could happen to a 99-year-old woman.

It goes without saying that Hawkins believed his movie dad never would have done something like this.

"George Bailey would have admitted that there was a mistake," Hawkins said. "He would have done the right thing."

BofA, to its credit, tried to make amends. The bank said it would waive all the late fees, leaving Hawkins to repay the $100 charged to his mom's credit card, which covered the $10.65 overdraft.

However, he dug in his heels. He said the overdraft never should have occurred because the Social Security check must have arrived in time to replenish his mom's account.

"It's the principle," Hawkins insisted.

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He said his mom's been a loyal BofA customer since the 1930s. His earnings from "It's a Wonderful Life" were deposited by her into a BofA account. This was no way to treat a customer of such long standing.

The principle thing — I get it. I can be as hard-nosed as anyone when dealing with corporate powers about relatively picayune amounts of money.

But it's important to know when the fight's over.

"A bank doesn't have to waive fees or charges," said Joe Ridout, a spokesman for the advocacy group Consumer Action. "There's no harm in pushing for more. But if you don't get it, you're just setting yourself up for frustration if you keep fighting."

He said all consumers should remember that overdraft protection is optional. You can instead choose to simply have a transaction rejected if you have insufficient funds to cover it.

"I would tell most people to opt out from overdraft protection," Ridout said. "It's almost never in your interest to get hit with a $30 or $35 fee for spending more than what's in your account."

Here's another tip: Check out a website called Mint. The Intuit-owned free service allows you to easily manage multiple financial accounts at multiple institutions.

This is a great way to navigate a complicated money landscape, especially if, like Hawkins, you're overseeing someone else's finances. It's also a helpful tool for budgeting and investment planning.

Otherwise, it's very important to keep tabs on checking accounts and credit cards by visiting your bank's site at least a couple of times a month. This not only will help keep you from spending more than you have but also will allow you to spot any fraudulent activity in a timely manner.

Although Hawkins believed his mom had been treated unfairly by BofA, the reality was that the bank did nothing wrong.

I found out that the $10.65 overdraft occurred a day before the overdraft protection kicked in and thus a day before the Social Security cash arrived.

Hawkins didn't know this, and he said BofA's various service reps never made the chronology clear. Note to service people: A lot of trouble could be avoided if you'd just ditch the darn scripts and truly look at a customer's situation.

Maybe that's why the bank found itself in a giving mood this week, and not because I was nosing around. BofA told Hawkins that it would waive repayment of the $100 in overdraft coverage. In other words, minus the $10.65 that started the whole thing, he could keep the remaining $89.35.

You'd never see Old Man Potter do something like that.

Betty Riess, a BofA spokeswoman, said the bank was pleased to have the matter resolved to everyone's satisfaction.

So did Hawkins hear a bell ring?

"Sure," he replied, not missing a beat. "The bell rang when the bank called."

And we all know what that means, don't we?

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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