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November 2009

Property of (Your Name Here)

At Clute’s Mosquito Festival, Shurline Wright of Freeport found she had $424.12 in unclaimed property.

Property of (Your Name Here)

By Mark Wangrin

Forget the metal detector and that old pirate’s map, because looking for buried treasure has never been easier. And sometimes, buried treasure comes looking for you.

The Comptroller’s Unclaimed Property Division is in the business of reuniting Texans with their lost property, from military medals and jewelry to irreplaceable photographs and – of course – cold, hard cash.

Unclaimed Property reunites Texans with lost treasures.

In fiscal 2009, the agency returned more than $147 million to Texans – much of it to people who didn’t even know they had it.

Look What We Found!

Under Texas state law, a wide variety of property – from insurance refunds to the contents of safety deposit boxes – is deemed abandoned after one to five years of inactivity, depending on its category. The holders of this property must turn it over to the state.

At present, the Comptroller is maintaining about $2 billion in such property in trust for its owners. In fiscal 2009, the office returned an amount worth about 45 percent of the property it received in that year.

But there’s no statute of limitations on claims. Even if the agency has held the property for decades, it must be returned if a valid claim is filed and approved.

Last year, the Comptroller’s office reached more than 80,000 potential owners of lost property through the Web, published lists, phone calls and booths at events from the State Fair to the Great Texas Mosquito Festival in Clute. These outreach efforts generated claims for more than $170 million.

In past years, the Comptroller’s office published a statewide list of potential claims of more than $250 each October. To reach even more Texans, the agency is beginning to publish six regional lists four times annually.

Most of the treasure in the Comptroller’s care – about 90 percent – represents money from bank accounts, payroll checks, dividends and refunds. The size of returned claims has ranged from $4.25 million in stock and dividends to many valued at a penny.

Owners of abandoned safe deposit boxes are included in the regional notification lists. If the contents are not claimed within a year, they are auctioned on eBay, where they’ve sold at an average of 245 percent of appraised value.

If the rightful owners file a claim after the property is auctioned, they receive the money generated from the auction.

Memories are Priceless

The results of the Unclaimed Property effort are not always limited to dollars and cents.

In 2001, for instance, Comptroller employee Lynn Alexander was examining the contents of a safety deposit box that included a class ring and some photos. Upon researching the owner, Alexander discovered that the box had belonged to an Irving police officer, Aubrey Hawkins, who was killed in the line of duty in the previous year.

Hawkins had just finished Christmas Eve dinner with his wife and son when he got a call about a suspicious subject in a parking lot. Hawkins responded. By the time backup arrived, the policeman had been shot dead. His killers turned out to be the notorious Texas Seven, a band of prisoners who had escaped days earlier from the Connally Unit near Kenedy.

The photos were of Hawkins’ mother and the class ring was his, from Pearce High School in Richardson. The items were returned to his first wife, Dixie Hawkins Buchanan, and their son Andrew.

“I was very happy and relieved for Andrew,” says Buchanan of her son, who turns 18 in December. “Pictures are really important because they can’t be replaced. That’s always been a big thing for me.”

Similarly, after U.S. Representative Frank Tejeda died from complications of brain cancer in 1997, his family began searching for missing keepsakes. The Unclaimed Property Division tracked down a safety deposit box filled with medals from Tejeda’s service in Vietnam, as well as honorary sheriff’s badges he had accumulated during his years in politics.

Last year, the Comptroller’s office reached more than 80,000 potential owners of lost property.

And one elderly couple, whose daughter asked that their name not be used, was in failing health when the division helped expedite their claim for nearly $34,000 earlier this year. The money is being used to provide them with higher-quality assisted living.

“The Grassroots Girls”

While the Web and published notices are effective, Unclaimed Property still devoted plenty of time to face-to-face contacts. In the past six months, Comptroller employees Korry Ingleman and Amy Redmond have worked booths at events across the state to convince passersby to search for property, generating more than $300,000 in claims.

In September, a man visited their booth to pick up a giveaway cardboard fan for his kid. They talked him into checking his name and he discovered he had $32 in lost funds – and that his recently deceased grandfather, who shared his name and had been living in a nursing home on a shoestring budget, had $25,000 in unclaimed property.

Some of their favorite moments come at job fairs, when “the Grassroots Girls,” as they’ve been nicknamed, reunite unemployed workers with a lost insurance refund or unclaimed paycheck.

“Even $20 or $100 really makes a difference these days,” Ingleman says. FN

For more information on finding unclaimed property, visit www.ClaimItTexas.org. To check for appearances by Unclaimed Property staff at community events, follow Comptroller news on Twitter.

Giving Back

The Comptroller’s office has returned about $270 million in unclaimed property to Texans over the past two years.

ActivityFiscal
2008
Fiscal
2009
Percent Increase
Property received (millions)$296.6$324.09%
Claims processed128,377152,70319%
Claims paid (millions)$123.1$147.119%

Source: Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts

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