The Search for Lost Treasures: Dealing with Unclaimed Property
Several states not only help citizens find unclaimed property, but they also make money off of it.
A stamp collection in an abandoned safe deposit box. An uncashed rebate for a coffeemaker. Ten-year-old travelers checks. They’re someone’s unclaimed property, but they can also be an asset to the state.
In the past few years, several states have gotten aggressive with unclaimed property, including making it easier for constituents to find their property; more efficient for banks and companies to fork it over to the state; and simpler for the state to earn money during various points in the process.
I talked about these issues in conversations with Dawn Marie Sass, Wisconsin’s treasurer, and John Gabriel, Tennessee’s director of unclaimed property, in this edited transcript. Gabriel is president of the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators, and Sass is its vice president.
A key part of having a robust program is letting people know your service is available. What have you and other states been doing to make that happen?
John Gabriel: A lot of states market their unclaimed property online with a name that brands the website. Florida has the Great Florida Treasure Hunt, and Texas calls its site, Come and Get It. The advantage of doing that with your program is that people know who and what you do. In most states, the service is free. Name recognition and branding helps people know they can come directly to the state and avoid going through a third party, where they may be charged a large fee to find their property.
What else do states do to let people know about the unclaimed property they hold?
JG: If there’s a name and social security number [associated] with the property, a lot of states will do database [searches]. For example, if the state has an income tax, it can bump up to it to find where the individual is, or look at driver’s licenses records or other databases that a company or individual wouldn’t have access to.
Dawn Marie Sass: Every year I was in office, I visited all 72 Wisconsin counties with the unclaimed property database. I made stops at public libraries, shopping malls and county fairs. People were amazed that someone from the government was out there trying to reunite people with their money. Last year, a gentleman came to one of my shopping mall stops. He’d had a brain aneurysm. While he was incapacitated, companies he had invested in wrote him letters asking him for instructions about what to do with his dividends. When they didn’t hear from him, they assumed the investment was abandoned and turned it over to us. He had over $236,000 coming back to him and more than 900 shares of stock.
When you haven’t been successful in uniting owners with their property, what do you do with it?
DMS: In Wisconsin, safety deposit property is turned over to us after five years of nonpayment. We then hang on to the property for another three years. After eight years, the property is considered abandoned.
We don’t have a big vault. We have to auction stuff off to make space. Some states are using eBay -- Texas and Pennsylvania were the first to do it. In my state, instead of going to eBay, we started to do everything in-house. We take pictures of the stuff -- coin collections, stamp collections, jewelry, pocket watches -- and we write our own descriptions and pay an appraiser to evaluate jewelry, or a coin or stamp expert to tell us whether a collection is worth anything. We auction it off online and mail everything out to purchasers. It’s allowed us a worldwide audience. There’s a guy from Australia who comes back every year to buy our coins. We earmark the money for whoever last owned the safety deposit box. If we sell a watch worth $100 and we get $200, there’s a record.
If you can’t find the owner, where does that money go?
DMS: It goes into the general fund’s investment fund, which earns interest. We transfer some of it to the common school fund for libraries. It’s the only money some public libraries get. Who can fault us for using this money to help kids read?
Property owners are only part of the equation. What are states doing to ensure banks and companies report unclaimed property?
JG: Holders can be energy companies with utility refunds, mom-and-pop stores with uncashed paychecks, investment banks with stock and dividend checks, insurance companies with old policy checks and, of course, banks with dormant safety deposit boxes. For companies who have not complied with our unclaimed property law and want to come into compliance, we have waived fees and penalties. We have software they can use for free to see what they need to do. Some states are creating a process where a company can go to a website and report there directly.
Are there issues with timing as to when the holders should hand the property over to the state?
DMS: Some holders feel that they should be able to hang onto someone’s money for ten years. We feel anywhere from one to five years is when we should get the stuff. An uncashed paycheck should [be handed over] within a year; the contents of a dormant safety deposit, five years. Everything else falls in between.
JG: There’s always disagreement about dormancy. You need to find [a good] balance. For example, on securities, Tennessee went from five years to three. Most securities issue dividend checks quarterly or semi-annually. If it’s only semi-annually, that’s 10 checks not cashed or returned in five years. It seems obvious that after three years and six checks not cashed, that’s enough time to say, "Turn it over and let us find them." That’s a good reason for shortening dormancy, but it’s tricky.
It takes time and money to run these programs. Aside from the feel-good rewards of reuniting people with their property, what’s in it for states?
JG: States collect property, find its owners and return it to them. Now, it varies from state to state whether they put it in the general fund or a trust fund to earn interest. But it is certainly in [a state's] interest to collect property from holders. States have more resources to find owners and return the property than if a company sat on it. Why shouldn’t the state have use of it? It’s also beneficial to the company because whatever the property is, it’s a liability on their books.