Walter Debes found some money on Monday. So did William McGrogan and Joe Dawson.
None of them discovered tremendous sums, and the cash wasn’t just lying around either. It was unclaimed property being held in the Pennsylvania Treasury. The money is theirs, and always was; they just didn’t know it.
On Monday, state Rep. Ed Neilson (D-169th dist.) hosted what he called a “Treasury hunt” in his office at Red Lion and Academy roads to help constituents find out if Pennsylvania was holding their assets.
The commonwealth has custody of about $2 billion in unclaimed assets. Neilson said $11 million of it belongs to people who live in his Northeast Philly district. Those district sums range from about 50 cents to more than $97,000, he said.
The lawmaker learned recently that more than $64 of that dough was his. Not the biggest slice of his district’s large pie, to be sure, but it’s money that was resting in the state’s coffers and is now in Neilson’s wallet.
Even before his event, scheduled to continue on Tuesday and Wednesday, Neilson said he had found more than $54,000 for one constituent.
When Neilson took office after a special election this spring, he heard about the assets Pennsylvania holds. He asked the Treasury Department to sort through the names and addresses of people in his 169th District who had unclaimed property. That information was put on a CD, which he and his staffers used Monday, along with a state Web site, to reunite cash and constituents.
Neilson sent out 2,000 mailings to let folks know he would help them find their money during business hours this week. Debes, McGrogan and Dawson were among the 28 people who turned out Monday. That’s when Dawson discovered he had an insurance company refund coming to him.
How did the state wind up with people’s money in the first place?
The answer is: lots of ways.
Bank accounts, for instance.
The state considers a bank account unclaimed property if it hasn’t been touched in any way for five years. Dormant accounts must, by law, be turned over to the state.
To avoid that, “you just have to do something that shows customer-generated activity,” said Jack Stollsteimer, Treasury’s director of unclaimed property. Interest posted doesn’t count as a transaction, he added.
Although the law allows the commonwealth to use unclaimed assets, it’s not really lost to its owners, Stollsteimer said in an interview earlier this year. The state wants people to get their assets, he said.
According to Rob McCord, the state’s treasurer, Pennsylvania is holding dollars for 1 in 10 of its citizens.
Trouble is that most people simply don’t know about Pennsylvania’s unclaimed property, or escheat, laws or that they can easily search to see if any of their money is in state custody, Stollsteimer said.
It’s easy to check. Just go to the Treasury Department’s Web site, www.patreasury.gov, and click on Unclaimed Property on the top left. You’ll be taken to a page to enter your name.
Kimberly Washington, coordinator of Northeast EPIC Stakeholders and president of the Frankford Parks Group, looked on the Treasury Web site and found the state had about $300 for her. It was the final paycheck from a job she had had while in college.
“It was very simple. I filled out a one-page application. A co-worker notarized it and I mailed it in,” she said.
Washington received a confirmation letter a week later. “It took about two to three weeks for me to get the actual check,” she said.
Last year, the commonwealth took in $200 million in unclaimed property, but it also returned $111 million. The average amount returned was $1,200, Stollsteimer said Monday at Neilson’s office.
ldquo;In this economy, a thousand or even two hundred dollars can make a difference in someone’s life,” Stollsteimer said.
State law requires financial institutions to turn over money from dormant accounts, said Brian Schmitt, chief financial officer of the American Heritage Federal Credit Union.
Stollsteimer said there are a couple options. A bank or credit union can give the person his or her money directly and then reclaim it from the state, or the person may get it from the state.
Unclaimed assets are put into the state’s general fund, but can be reclaimed at any time. The state feels it is more trustworthy, Schmitt said earlier this year, and it’s a plus for taxpayers, he added.
“The state gets the benefit of holding the money,” Stollsteimer said. “But the state is in a better position to find the owners.”
The unclaimed property law doesn’t just apply to bank accounts, Schmitt said. Contents of safety-deposit boxes are turned over to the state after five years of inactivity, too. Cash set aside to pay money orders goes to the state in seven years. Money for travelers checks, in 15 years.
“What the representative is doing is extraordinarily helpful in our outreach efforts,” he said.
And besides, there are no fees involved in collecting what’s yours. Although there are some private individuals who solicit finder’s fees, state law prohibits a charge higher than 15 percent, Neilson and Stollsteimer said.
Neilson said he and his staffers upped the total of assets they had found to more than $97.000 by late Tuesday morning.
Large as that amount is, the lion’s share of the $11 million Neilson believes belongs to individuals and businesses in his district still is held by the Treasury Department.
“I just don’t think people understand how many have unclaimed property,” Stollsteimer said. “Ignorance is the biggest issue to overcome.” ••
Found money …
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania maintains a data bank of the names of people whose assets it is holding. Visit www.patreasury.gov and click on unclaimed property.
Or call 1-800-222-2046.
Widen your search to other states and Canadian provinces at www.missingmoney.comEndFragment