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.