Unclaimed Funds in Search of Their Owners
It Really Is Free Money

By David Silversmith

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AUGUST 2007 - The phrase “If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is” is usually right. One exception is a little-known program run by every state. Whenever a bank account, insurance account, or utility account becomes inactive, it gets turned over to the state comptroller’s office. Anyone who has ever moved and forgotten to collect their utility deposit or to cash a health insurance check may have money at their state’s office of unclaimed funds.

New York State has more than $7.5 billion in unclaimed funds spread over 21 million accounts. New York collected over $509 million during fiscal year 2005 but returned only $151.7 million. Odds are, someone you know has some money they have forgotten about. In fact, one individual has a $1.7 million unclaimed check waiting for him at the New York State Comptroller’s Office.

I entered my last name on New York State’s Unclaimed Funds webpage (www.osc.state.ny.us/ouf/index.htm). To my pleasant surprise, I found that my father had two accounts. Both accounts were shares of an environmental company he bought in the mid-1980s that he had forgotten about. My dad received a check for $117 from the New York State Comptroller’s Office, and I decided to search some more.

I filled in my name again on a website that searches 35 states at once for unclaimed funds, www.missingmoney.com, and found unclaimed accounts for my uncle and cousin in New Hampshire, and for my grandfather in Florida. My grandfather had $295 in rebates from the DMV. Because he died in 1993, my father had the honor of once again claiming the funds.

Because the address on my father’s two New York accounts is the same address he has lived at since 1979, I was curious as to why he had never received notice concerning these records. It seems easy enough: All it would take is a letter notifying him of these accounts, and providing instructions on how to claim them. When I asked the comptroller’s department for an explanation, they stated that it was not their responsibility and the onus was on the company holding the account to notify the owner. This rarely happens. When a company does attempt to notify the owner, it is usually not successful because the company’s version of “notice” usually consists of taking out a full-page ad in a local newspaper and printing out all their unclaimed accounts in four-point type. I doubt many people read these ads, so the money goes to the Office of Unclaimed Funds, where it will languish for eternity until someone finds it.

Returning Funds to Their Owners

This money belongs to the people of New York, and they should have it back. My solution to this problem is simple: The New York State Comptroller’s Office should set up a computer program cross-referencing the names and addresses on the unclaimed accounts with the telephone directory. If a match is found, the Comptroller’s Office should notify the holder of that account. Returning just $1 billion of the $7.5 billion could be a significant boost to the New York economy.

David Silversmith CPA, CFE, is with Rogoff & Company, P.C., New York, N.Y. He can be reached at dsilversmith@rogoff.com.




















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