States Use Web for Unclaimed Cash

Monday, February 12th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CHICAGO (AP) — Bob Mendez's brother, a savvy Internet surfer, called with the news: The state of Illinois had some cash for him.

Unbeknownst to Mendez, a gas company had never repaid a deposit on a building he had owned years before, and the money went to the state. His brother plugged his name into the Illinois treasurer's Web site and came up with a match.

Three weeks and a claim form later, the 70-year-old Chicago printing shop owner was $130 richer.

``It was just a pleasant surprise, so my wife and I went out and had a real nice dinner and a bottle of wine,'' Mendez said.

Experts estimate that one in every eight Americans has unclaimed property or cash being held in state treasuries — with more than $20 billion waiting to be discovered. Now states are turning to the Internet as an easy way to match forgotten family treasures, uncashed checks or inheritances with their rightful owners.

``It's like they won a bingo game, except it was theirs to begin with,'' said Illinois Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka.

Topinka set up the Web site about 1 1/2 years ago as an alternative to the squint-worthy newspaper lists states have been using for years to publicize unclaimed property owners' names.

The Web site also publicizes state auctions of property from safe-deposit boxes that have been abandoned or inactive for more than five years. If banks can't track down the account holders, the money and property go to the state.

Topinka said a man discovered an $820,000 inheritance he didn't know existed, and a widow learned her husband had never cashed $24,000 in pension checks that now belonged to her.

Illinois is holding $900 million worth of property or cash for more than 4 million people, Topinka said.

Almost every state now has some searchable Web site for unclaimed property. The New York comptroller's site, for example, encourages people see whether they're owed any part of the state's $4 billion in unclaimed funds.

Twenty-eight states provide their information to a single site,

The National Abandoned Property Processing Corp. operates that site as a service to states that use the company to track down abandoned property. The free site searches all 28 participating states and links to Web pages of non-participating states.

``What this Web site enables an owner to do is to go to one single source and find out if they have any abandoned property,'' said Jeremy Katz, a company vice president.

The site conducts 44,000 searches a day, with 1,000 of those matching a name, Katz said. As of October, users had filed more than $76 million in claims, although states determine which of those are valid, he said.

Many state officials say they've seen a jump in claims since they put their unclaimed property lists on the Web.

Sheila Clancy, a spokeswoman for Texas comptroller's office, said before the state provided an online search form three years ago, it would return about $33 million a year. Now that number is about $49 million, she said. Texas holds more than $850 million in unclaimed property.

``It has gotten a tremendous response,'' Clancy said of the Web site. ``What we noticed immediately was a decline in the amount of snail-mail inquiries we receive on unclaimed property.''

But state financial officials stress that the money belongs to particular people, not the state. They urge everyone to tell family members about safe-deposit boxes or bank accounts before it's too late.

``For God's sake, don't keep it to yourself, because you can't take it with you,'' Topinka said. ``I will.''


On the Net:

Map linking to all states' unclaimed property Web sites:—links.cfm