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A hefty reminder to check financial statements

Published May 4, 2003

Let's be honest now: Do you always open your bank or brokerage statements soon after you get them? Or do you sometimes toss one aside, thinking you'll get around to looking at it later? "Later" turns out to be three weeks or three months down the road, or never. Maybe you rediscover it unopened in a stack of newsletters, catalogs and other things you meant to look at but didn't.

I know I've been guilty of that very thing on occasion. But something happened recently that's given me new motivation to pay attention. As I walked in the door from work one evening, I glanced casually at a bank statement my husband had opened and left on a table. The list of transactions in our money market account caught my eye:

Deposit: $300

Deposit: $150

Deposit: $250

Deposit: $340,512.18

I hoped that my husband had won the Florida Lottery and forgotten to tell me, but I knew that wasn't the case. The big deposit belonged to someone else, presumably someone with an account number similar to ours.

"I already called," my husband told me. The bank, he said, didn't seem particularly concerned about its mistake. It did, however, quickly debit our account.

We had a good laugh, but it wouldn't have been very funny if we had made a big deposit that was posted to someone else's account. I certainly wouldn't want to count on the beneficiary of the bank's mistake to call it to their attention. While there is no chance that we will be making any $340,000 deposits, the smaller deposits we do make are important to us and much more likely to be overlooked.

If your money is important to you, I encourage you to check all your financial statements to be sure both the credits and the debits to your accounts are correct. Banks do make mistakes. I have the proof.

Q. I have a very complicated bookkeeping problem. Is a CPA the best person to consult on this problem or is there someone else? I would like to get out of this situation as soon as possible as I think they are taking great advantage of me. What do CPAs charge per hour?

I don't know who "they" are, but my guess is that your bookkeeping problem involves business records or a trust account. A CPA probably would be your best resource in this situation.

Ask for an initial consultation during which you can explain the situation, find out about the CPA's fees and ask about the experience he or she has in the particular area in which you need help.

For example, if you want business records examined, it might help if the CPA has worked with companies in the particular industry involved. If you suspect illegal activity or an attempt to hide assets, you might look for a CPA who is experienced in "forensic" accounting or who works on divorce cases. Of course you should avoid anyone who has ties to the business you want scrutinized.

CPAs generally charge by the hour, but fees vary from firm to firm and may depend somewhat on the expertise required. In the Tampa Bay area, fees generally range from $75 to $150 an hour. Although the problem appears complicated to you, a CPA wouldn't necessarily find it so.

Ask the CPA for both the hourly rate and an estimate of the total cost of the project before making a commitment. Ask if there are things you could do to save time for the CPA and keep costs lower. Then ask for an engagement letter, which puts all the details in writing, reducing the potential for misunderstanding.

Q. I recently refinanced my home and noticed an intangible state tax was charged on the loan. All that I have read on Florida intangible tax does not address the taxing of a loan. A home is not an intangible item. How can the state justify such a tax?

A house is definitely a tangible item, but a mortgage is considered intangible, which means its value comes from what it represents rather than from the item itself, which in this case would be a piece of paper. When a mortgage is originated, the state taxes it. Unlike the annual intangibles tax on stocks and bonds, this is a one-time tax applied to new mortgages. The tax is actually levied against the lender, but as you have discovered, lenders pass it through to borrowers.

- Helen Huntley writes about investing and markets for the Times. If you have a question about investments or personal finance, send it to On Money. We'll try to answer those we think are of greatest reader interest. All questions must be submitted in writing, but readers' names will not be published. Send questions to Helen Huntley, Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.

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