These finders don't want to be keepers

Which of these is not like the others?

  • a sack of loose diamonds
  • gold bars
  • a can of sardines

Trick question -- they're all like each other. They're all unclaimed property for which the California State Controller's office has tried to locate the rightful owner.

unclaimed_property_gold bars.jpg
Nearly 20 pounds of gold bars, estimated worth: $375,000

There are myriad reasons why property languishes in state custody. Sometimes the owner forgets about a bank account, moves and leaves no forwarding address. Sometimes the owner dies and the heirs are unaware the property exists. Sometimes businesses don't try very hard to find customers who've gone walkabout.

The controller's office has more than $6.9 billion in unclaimed property belonging to nearly 25 million individuals and organizations. Mostly, it's not bullion or sardines, it's cash in banks, utility deposits, insurance proceeds with missing beneficiaries. It's the contents of abandoned safe deposit boxes that are more likely to contain jewelry or baseball cards than cans of tiny dead fish.

By law, "holders," including corporations, business associations, financial institutions and insurance companies, are required to report unclaimed property annually and deliver it to the controller's office if there has been no customer contact for three years. Often, businesses know little about customers, which is when the state's sometimes creepy reach is welcome if you're the one entitled to the Apple stock purchased in 1980.

Bag of diamonds, estimated worth: $500,000

The unclaimed property program began in 1959. In 2007, the program was a mess, and the controller's office was the defendant in a federal lawsuit filed by parties aggrieved over what was deemed an insufficient process of notifying people.

"The system was broken, and the controller's office had gotten hauled into court," John Chiang, the state controller, said last week, shortly before he was to give the keynote speech at the annual fundraiser of the Korean American Medical Association of Southern California. The judge was preparing to take the program into receivership, but Chiang had just assumed office and was keen to make the return of property to its rightful owner a priority of his administration.

"I'll fix it," he told the judge, asking for a chance to make the program work before the controller's office lost, well, control.

"I was the new guy, so he gave me a shot." No wonder. In conversation, Chiang is casual, funny and engaged. He practically corners the charisma market.

Within a year, Chiang got legislation passed enabling his office to provide notice to people before their property was transferred to state custody. In 2012, those notices resulted in 206,179 properties being claimed before they were sent to the state.

It was the rare example of government working efficiently with demonstrable success.

Since Chiang took office, more than $2.9 billion in lost or forgotten property has been returned to its owners, and as of this year, there's a nifty new online claim process for cash property with a value of less than $500. By April, the system had paid 49,662 claims, representing about $4 million.

unclaimed property-moon landing.jpg
Original moon landing front page and signed Neil Armstrong photo

Of course, you don't find if you don't seek, and you don't seek if you don't know you own something. With the laughable pittance of $50,000 to spend each year promoting the unclaimed property program and the process of searching for the sardines you might not even know you own, the controller personally flogs the program at every opportunity.

It was Chiang's second appearance at the annual KAMASC event whose 112 attendees his staff vetted in advance to see if any of their names matched those of people it was trying to locate as potential owners. About 80 people in the controller's office process claims, but only a few are devoted to locating special claims. "Some claims are easy," Chiang said, "and some are pretty complicated."

Often, those involve property that belongs to more than one member of a family, and things can get ... Shakespearean. One Chiang staffer recalled trying to unite an estate's mineral rights proceeds with its sibling heirs. The daughters wanted to receive payment, but were trying to withhold their brother's share because, they told staffers, "He doesn't deserve it."

In the face of such family values, "Sometimes we have to play counselor," Chiang said, smiling. He said he personally reads all constituent correspondence "if someone's having an issue."

Termed out this year, Chiang's running for state treasurer, but maybe he should go for state shrink.

The psychology lesson was interrupted by an aide tugging at his elbow, and Chiang bounded up to the lectern. "Thank you for the introduction," he said to the doctors enjoying their steak and lobster at Wilshire Country Club. "Sorry I missed it -- I was talking to a reporter who was asking me about unclaimed property."

"I'm the state's chief fiscal officer. Unclaimed property," he segued, "occurs if a business holds it for three years, then it's given to the state of California, and I try to find you. In the last seven years we've returned $2.9 billion and 220 million shares of stock."

"I'm going to call out names. They may or may not be you." He reeled off 11 names, how many matches to it were found in the system and the dollar amounts awaiting claims for each match.

"Paul Choi, 24 matches." Could be one guy, or 24 with the same name and one missing asset each, one of which was worth $1,629.

"Peter H. Lee, 493 matches." That's either a really common name or a loner burdened with a wide, get-lost network.

"George In, 24 matches." Chiang looked directly at the KAMASC president-elect. "George, if you give me power of attorney, I'm gonna get rich."

"David Ko, 31 matches." The person by that name at this event is president of the national Korean American Medical Association. One of the matches was for a Bank of America account with $22,700. "Is this you?" Chiang asked him. "If it's yours, you can pay for the dinner next year."

Ho and Eunice Bae had "one dollar, in a WAMU account," Chiang said, adding that California is a community property state, so each was entitled to 50 cents.

Chiang's speech was mostly an update about the state's financial condition, a parsing of how it spends taxpayer money and an appeal for the attendees to be politically involved so things are run properly and the controller doesn't have to put a hold on their tax refunds like he did in 2009.

Then, Chiang was out the door to catch a plane to Sacramento, but not before pulling out his smartphone to show Ho Bae how to log onto the controller's site to claim his solitary greenback.

"I'm going to look it up," Bae, a gastroenterologist said, as his wife, Eunice, a small businesswoman, shrugged and said something about her deceased father-in-law having had an account at Washington Mutual back in the day.

And the family practitioner, Dr. In, with 24 matches?

"It's probably me," he said, sheepishly. Two years ago, when Chiang spoke to this crowd, In had 19 matches, and has researched exactly none of them. "I was outside when he was announcing the names," he explained. "Somebody told me later." He blamed his wife. She was going to review the site, he said, "and literally, about two months ago, she started working on it."

He figured his potential windfall was "probably some obscure health insurance payments. ...They go to the wrong address or something."

"Since I had the controller in-house," he said slyly, "I wanted to give him power of attorney so he could give me the check today."

The most valuable of the matches to the In name was $1,024. That buys a lot of sardines.


Photos of unclaimed property courtesy the California State Controller's Office.

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