$tate$ ca$hing in on unclaimed property

Many states have changed laws to let them take control of more unclaimed items more quickly.

When Americans lose track of money -- in neglected bank accounts, paychecks they forgot to cash and elsewhere -- state governments are increasingly aggressive in taking control of the cash.

Now, with those efforts swelling state coffers by more than $40 billion and lawmakers using some of it to patch budget holes, skirmishes are breaking out between states and companies with their own interest in holding on to the unclaimed property.

Companies accuse states of overreaching. State officials counter the businesses are more concerned with keeping the assets themselves. But critics say rightful owners too often get short shrift.

"The analogy is to finding somebody's lost wallet. In Minnesota, we give people their wallets back. It's just what we do here. But it's not what the state is doing," said Joe Atkins, a state representative from outside St. Paul who last year introduced a bill calling for increased funding to track down property owners.

While other states, too, have increased efforts to reunite owners with their property, many have changed laws to let them take control of more unclaimed property more quickly.

State lost-and-found programs have been growing rapidly for more than a decade. California alone has 28.5 million on its unclaimed property list.

States stepped up pursuit of unclaimed property in the late 1990s, after restructuring by insurance companies exposed those firms' inability to locate many policy holders. Many states have hired auditing firms to scrutinize the books of insurers, retailers and others, paying them multimillion-dollar fees for unclaimed property they brought in.

The experience of two medical researchers who recently sued Delaware officials highlights the stakes.

Gilles Gosselin and Jean Louis Imbach, French chemists who developed a drug for treating hepatitis B, became shareholders of a company incorporated in Delaware to develop it. In 2009, without contacting them, Delaware took control of their stock, deemed abandoned, and sold it for $1.7 million.

As Gosselin and Imbach worked to track down their shares, the company was acquired by Merck & Co., in a 2014 deal that valued the researchers' stock at $13.7 million. Delaware turned over proceeds of the earlier stock sale, but they took a $12 million hit.

"All of this could've been easily avoided if someone just sent a letter," said Ethan Millar, a Los Angeles lawyer representing the researchers.

Most consumers on unclaimed property lists don't even realize they're entitled to missing money. It could be an inheritance they weren't aware of or mutual funds entrusted to a broker with a mistaken address. Most are owed less than $100.

In all, state governments have $41.7 billion in unclaimed property on their books, according to the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators. Changes in law have accelerated collections:

* Last year, Pennsylvania lawmakers shortened from five years to three the period before bank accounts and other property can be considered abandoned. Money claimed by the state jumped to $669 million from $265 million the year before. Until the change, Pennsylvania returned about 43 percent of what it collected; afterward, payouts rose only slightly.

* Before 2008, Delaware waited until mail sent to owners of stock was returned as undeliverable before declaring their property abandoned. But that year, it began requiring only that shareholders have no contact with their account for three years, without attempting to reach them.

* Minnesota used to send letters directly to state residents telling them when the state had their money. But lawmakers eliminated that provision in 2005, while ditching the requirement to publish the names of property owners in newspapers.

Still, Minnesota is among states that set up booths at state fairs to inform people of the missing money, efforts that have helped boost its return rate to about 45 percent of what it takes in.

Michael Rothman, Minnesota's commerce commissioner, said he wants legislators to double or triple funding to hire finders who will search for people and to step up advertising and outreach.

"It's great to have a goal, but if you don't give the resources to do it, we can't achieve it," Rothman said.