Besides being well-known, well-heeled New Yorkers, what do Henry Kravis, Jessica Seinfeld, Donald Trump, Lewis Lapham, Lizzie Grubman, Peggy Siegal, Nina Griscom, Ira Rennert and Nicole Miller all have in common? They don’t know it yet but Tiffany & Co. owes them money. How about Jerry Seinfeld, Matt Dillon, Michael Nouri, Sigourney Weaver, Julia Stiles, former Observer editor Peter W. Kaplan, Glenn Close, Joey Ramone’s heirs and Madonna? Cold, hard and abandoned cash from Walt Disney could be coming their way very soon.
Unless they’re reading this, Thomas Pynchon has no idea about his unsettled account with Putnam Investments, Harvey Weinstein is similarly clueless about some buckaroos from Prudential Financial Services, Fisher Stevens, Ron Perelman, Mr. Seinfeld and Mr. Lapham are all ignorant about what Bergdorf Goodman owes them, and either Goldman Sachs neglected to tell its former big cheese, Robert Rubin, about a little handout or he’s pretty flush these days.
Same goes for Graydon Carter, who has a windfall with his name on it from Western Union Financial Services, a sum that’s been gathering dust since the days of 350 Madison. Condé Nast is also completely in the dark about 78 unclaimed funds, which is just another slice of a nearly $11 billion pie that New York State desperately wants to return to its rightful owners and heirs. You too may have a fortune waiting if you were ever too busy or lazy or forgetful to claim health insurance, interest and dividend checks; trust funds, mutual funds and mortgage insurance refunds; money from estate processes, savings accounts, utility deposits, a last paycheck before leaving a job, a rental security refund before moving.
According to the Office of Unclaimed Funds website, if there has been no activity in such an account for two to five years, the money is considered lost. State law requires banks, insurance companies, utilities and other businesses to turn over inactive holdings to the state comptroller’s office, which has acted as custodian of abandoned assets and property since 1943. Unlike Florida, which pockets lost loot after three years, New York holds the funds indefinitely.
“We don’t spend any of that money, and if anything we even give interest,” said Vanessa Lockel, a media rep at the comptroller’s office. “Sometimes it’s better than a bank, depending on the type of fund it is. If it’s a utility bill obviously, there’s no interest in that but there are interest-bearing accounts that are handed over to us, and they will continue to make interest for up to five years when we hold the account. So we’re not taking any cut out of it.”
And there’s no fee for this service! Not only that, Ms. Lockel’s department and regional reps do their best to get the word out with press releases and events around town where they hand out literature and put names into their database. At one recent event upstate, a man learned that had a claim worth $800,000. Not as easy as it sounds.
“Sometimes people say, Why don’t we do more marketing?” she continued. “We’re limited by tax dollars, our staff is limited, there’s budget cuts, as you can imagine, especially during this difficult economic time. So in order for us to promote the program we have to almost be patient and wait for the media to care.”
When pressed, Ms. Lockel estimated that perhaps 20 percent of New Yorkers had heard of the Office of Unclaimed Funds and a “very low number” knew of the website, which gets about 10,000 visitors a day, with 300 or so submitting claims. (About 70% of all claims are submitted via the web filing system, which started in March 2010 and has produced over 100,000 new claims, generating over $30 million.)
“New Yorkers tend to be busy,” Ms. Lockel explained. “They’re busy with their lives, doing what they’re doing, and we tend to sometimes be cynical, because I’m sorry, free money? You’re telling me there’s free money out there? O.K., yeah.”
She added that while most claims are under $100, some are in the tens and hundreds of thousands. Currently, the largest unclaimed account for an individual is $1.7 million. In 2008, $4 million was returned to an individual, from a stock claim.
I was down to my last $700 in July when I had a conversation with my friend Bruce Owen that changed my life and saved my neck. Bruce told our high school email group that he had just received a letter from Heirfinders Research Associates informing him that he owned 3,128 shares of stock now worth $37K.
After we mocked him for a while (“Dream on; that’s obviously a scam”), he plugged all our names into various unclaimed funds websites around the country.
“George, you may have some action yourself,” his next email read, followed by a link to a website. It turned out that Daimler Chrysler tried to send me a letter six or seven apartments ago. I’d forgotten all about this stock bequeathed by my grandmother in the early 1990s. “Don’t spend it all on pinball and beer,” she’d advised.
I filled out the requested info (name, current address, social security number, etc.) and imagined receiving a dividend check for $1.98. Another thought occurred: Bruce deserved more than a “Thanks, man.” He said he’d be delighted to take a cut, and he agreed to my offer.
“I’ll take 5% unless it’s a shitty dividend check.”
Less than a week after I filed the claim, hundreds of dollars went missing from my checking account. Staring into space for half an hour, sensing doom, envisioning a return to dishwashing and caddying, I waited for my fiancée to return from Zumba class, then called an emergency meeting to discuss her extravagance and the tough times ahead for us.
We had barely enough to get by until her next payday, most of which would go to rent. Where had it all gone? Huh? Another Peter Hidalgo dress from the Dressing Room?
She stormed outside but then returned seconds later with a big smile and stack of mail. “We have three checks from the government!”
Hers was for $159, something from her health insurance provider in the late ’90s.
After tearing open my first check, I began to tremble. There were four figures. It couldn’t be. The timing, right after our money chat, was too bizarre.
“How much is it, how much is it?!” she shrieked.
A lot. The second check wasn’t bad either. But we didn’t rejoice, jump and down, and hug each other. We sat in silence, unable to process this miracle. It was like an O. Henry story or winning the lottery. No, it was divine intervention.
After the initial shock wore off, we allowed ourselves to feel pretty good about things.
Then cynicism kicked in. Were these real checks? Were they sent by identity thieves buying some time after having snatched my Social? Was this a prank committed by my email group, like in Preston Sturges’s Christmas in July, when Dick Powell’s co-workers trick him into believing he’s won a coffee slogan contest’s first prize of $25,000, which he wants to use to support his mother and marry his girl?
“Of course they’re real. They’re state-certified checks with a hologram,” my fiancée insisted. “Let’s go to Blue Ribbon or Peter Luger!”
Skepticism and paranoia prevailed. Making the deposit at Chase, I worried I’d be apprehended and charged with counterfeiting. Instead, the JP Morgan Chase checks were happily accepted and $5,587.70 was made instantly available. Like magic, our net worth had increased 11-fold. I felt like a newly minted multimillionaire in the big leagues.
My high school e-mail group wondered what I was going to do with the five large. “Ibiza!”
Bruce, gracious as ever, declined his finder’s fee (“Keep the Benjamin”). I sent him a documentary about Luna and a great memoir by the band’s leader, Dean Wareham. (Luna’s other genius guitarist, Sean Eden, has an unclaimed fund from Broadcast Music, Inc.)
The next day, while plugging in rich, famous New Yorkers’ names into the magical website (http://www.osc.state.ny.us/ouf/index.htm), and noticing that almost every other one had some lost money, a bright idea occurred: Hey, maybe I could shake ’em all down for 5 to 10 percent? I would donate a portion of the commissions to KittyKind rescue and adoption, and the rest would go to resuscitating Manhattan nightlife. Tracy Westmoreland (who has an unclaimed fund) would receive a stipend for his bar, Siberia. So would Mars Bar’s owner Hank Penza, Bungalow 8’s Amy Sacco (who has an unclaimed fund) and the Beatrice Inn’s Paul Sevigny (whose sister Chloë has an unclaimed fund). Then I’d help reopen Ruby Fruit and the Village Idiot, my fiancée would get her two-bedroom, two-bath apartment and perhaps we’d have a lavish wedding reception on Liberty Island, with Van Halen and Luna playing.
I called Ms. Lockel at the comptroller’s office, who told me it was perfectly legal to ask for a finder’s fee of 15 percent. Among those with unclaimed funds I planned to contact were Jay McInerney, James Gandolfini, Alec Baldwin, Sean Combs, Rudolph Giuliani, Rupert Murdoch, Denise Rich, Gordon Sumner, Matt Dillon, Timothy Hutton, Tina Brown, Charlie Rose, Amanda Burden, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Lorne Michaels, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Conan O’Brien, Denis Leary, Marisa Tomei, David Dinkins, Liv Tyler, Larry Gagosian, Aby Rosen, Larry King, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Lou Reed, John McEnroe, Russell Simmons, Diane von Furstenberg, Richard Fuld, George Soros, Alfred Taubman, Tiffany Dubin, Roger Ailes, Dick Gilder, Billy Joel, Barbara Walters, Rosie Perez, Al Pacino, Lauren Bacall, Bianca Jagger, Isaac Mizrahi, Julianne Moore, Matt Lauer, Bernadette Peters, Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell—along with Hearst, Dow Jones, NBC, CBS, ABC, and the Rockefellers, who must have at least a billion missing.
Then my better instincts returned. It was time to give something back and pay it forward.
I plugged in more names: family, friends, colleagues, subjects of flattering articles. Many did not respond to emails saying they hit the jackpot. Maybe they were in Venice or St. Tropez or just creeped out. Others pegged me for an identity thief or “spam.” One former mentor simply wrote “scam” and later, “Why are you trying to scam me and Jim?”
An old drinking buddy got testy. “No offense and very sweet of u, but don’t love a reporter knowing my biz, real or not, dear friend. Drop it?” he fired back after a second notification.
“I’m sure this IS a scam and you didn’t write this,” a gorgeous socialite author informed me. “No one replies to a directive requiring a ss #. Hope you’re aware of this e-mail use.” I tried to win her over. No dice. “Don’t believe any of it!” she snapped.
The next day she sort of apologized: “Thanks, George. Now I see it wasn’t a hacker using your name. Big hoo-ha on Channel 7 [about unclaimed funds] last night. XXX….My potential windfall is probably a $2.50 refund or gift from Saks. We’ll see.”
“Shut up! Like money that is owed to me?” asked a fetching young woman friend. “What inspired you to email me about this? How did you find that old address of mine?”
Gradually her emails become friendlier: “Is there a check waiting for me?…WOW you may turn out to be my hero!” Then she had second thoughts. “Is this your new e-mail? Aren’t you on Gmail?…I am cynical and suspicious but it isn’t April 1st, so I have decided to trust you…We shall see! Thanks George! I believe in you now. XX…This is totally awesome! I found all these friends of mine who are owed money. YOU RULE GG!”
Then she started looking up friends. Then she started contacting those friends about their sudden money: “My mother is the only person so far who believes me. My other e-mails have been met with silence. Hmmm.” (A week later she received a check for 67 bucks).
“Georgie! Did you send this?” a superrich goddess wrote back after being made aware of some abandoned assets that belonged to her. She forwarded a bogus email she’d received from an offshore bank in the Caribbean saying she was owed “millions of pounds,” which she equated with my missive. After some back and forth over the next week, and a chat with the comptroller’s office that confirmed that her claim was for real, she finally believed me. Now she was certain she really did have “millions” coming to her and offered me a “present.”
“Aww, that’s all right,” I told her. “You know, for the first time in my career I feel like I’m doing some good. But you can take me out to dinner.”