Minnesota Department of Commerce holding $606M in unclaimed assets

  • Article by: JENNIFER BJORHUS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 2, 2014 - 2:42 PM

Total hit $606 million after Minnesota cut back its efforts to find assets’ rightful owners.

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Old dollar bills are among the treasures from abandoned safety deposit boxes that the state Commerce Department keeps stored in its vault in downtown St. Paul.

Photo: BRE McGEE • Special to Star Tribune,

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The state of Minnesota is holding lost money for Prince, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, state Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson and a sports columnist so legendary there’s a statue of him outside the Target Field in Minneapolis.

They and 50,000 other Minnesotans are due a piece of the growing mass of unclaimed property held by the state Department of Commerce. The stash includes funds from dormant bank accounts, uncashed death benefits, untouched shares of stock, old utility deposits and treasures from inactive safe-deposit boxes, all of which companies were required to turn over to the state. And, partly because of Commerce’s increased efforts to get companies to turn over inactive assets, the mysterious lost and found has more than doubled since 2005 to a record $606 million.

Most of the money goes directly into the state’s general fund with no strings attached, save for the responsibility to return it if owners are found.

Klobuchar can’t be too hard to find. Jesson works a few blocks away from Commerce in downtown St. Paul. Sports personality Sid Hartman regularly shuffles into the Star Tribune.

So why can’t Commerce find them? It’s not really looking.

“We don’t, as a matter of normal course, go through a list of people that we have and try to find them,” said Emily Johnson Piper, Commerce’s chief of staff and deputy commissioner. “Presumably, people have already tried to find these people and they can’t.”

In a later interview, Johnson Piper said the state is trying to find owners via publicity about unclaimed property and through the website MissingMoney.com.

Notification rules changed

Not everyone thinks that’s enough; in fact, the Legislature has pressed Commerce to do more. William Palmer, a Sacramento attorney who specializes in unclaimed property, thinks states improperly use unclaimed property to prop up their budgets, while violating the due process rights of unknowing owners.

Palmer successfully sued the state of California in 2001 for failing to directly notify owners via a letter and newspaper listings. A federal injunction in 2007 shut down the state’s unclaimed property program and forced the state to rewrite its laws.

“What Minnesota is doing is a feel-good dog and pony show,” Palmer said. “There’s a fundamental constitutional requirement that you notify people before you touch their property.”

Johnson Piper, at Commerce, said she won’t comment on someone’s legal opinion.

“We are a consumer protection agency,” Johnson Piper said. “We take that duty very seriously.”

Commerce is following state law, which places the burden on companies to find customers and business partners who have left money behind. The state used to notify Minnesotans by letter about unclaimed property in their name. Lawmakers changed the mailing requirement from “shall” to “may” in 1986, and then repealed it altogether in 2005, the same year they eliminated the requirement to publish the names of owners of unclaimed property in newspapers.

Commerce is required to spend at least 15 percent of its $725,000 annual budget for unclaimed property on public notification. A key effort involves staffers bringing laptops to events so people can search MissingMoney.com. They hold about three such events a year at grocery stores, the Mall of America and during the Minnesota State Fair, Johnson Piper said.

The department has also sent e-mail alerts to lawmakers to get the word out, she said, and has begun using the Accurint database service to find owners due unusually large sums.

It pays $10,300 a year to link with MissingMoney.com. The national database is run by Xerox State & Local Solutions, a unit of Xerox Corp. that most states use. Xerox makes money on it via website ads although some states, including Minnesota, pay a fee for fast-tracking claims and features such as automatic Social Security number checks, it said.

57,000 people due

While MissingMoney.com features the most up-to-date information for lookups, Commerce provided the Star Tribune with the most recent available copy of the entire Minnesota database, current to the end of 2011. Commerce holds on to the most recent data to give property owners time to find it. The database shows 57,000 people and companies that are owed money in amounts ranging from six figures to a single penny.

Topping the list is a company called Hark & Co, somehow separated from $763,671 related to shares in St. Jude Medical.

The ZIP code with the most people and businesses due money (1,343) as well as the largest sum of lost funds ($7 million), is 55402 in downtown Minneapolis. In terms of the number people and companies with unclaimed assets, the next is 55104, which includes St. Paul’s Hamline-Midway area, and 55416, covering parts of St. Louis Park, Edina and Golden Valley.

Prudential, MetLife, U.S. Bancorp, Wells Fargo & Co. and the state’s own Revenue Department are among the entities sending in the most assets.

There are many reasons property goes unclaimed, experts say. Families are unaware of the assets of deceased loved ones. People move. Life insurance companies fail to find the beneficiaries of deceased policyholders. Shareholders don’t cash dividend checks or respond to proxy notices, and then find their stock has been deemed unclaimed and transferred to the state where it will be liquidated.

After her mother died in 2010, LaDonn Jonsen lost a $17,000 check the bank sent her from one of her mother’s CDs. The bank ultimately sent the money to Commerce. When Jonsen found herself on MissingMoney.com, Commerce asked for the original check, she said. It wasn’t easy because she had retired and moved from Minneapolis to Decorah, Iowa. But she chanced upon it one day while digging in a banker’s box in her office.

“I was like, oh my! I can’t believe it!” Jonsen said. “Part of it was my own fault; if I’d had a better filing system, this all wouldn’t have happened. I was absolutely certain I had deposited it.”

A Twin Cities couple owed a large sum are suffering from mental illness and Alzheimer’s, making it difficult for their only child to retrieve the money from Commerce.

Last year, after the Legislature pressed it to step up its notification efforts, Commerce took out occasional newspaper ads that urge readers to check MissingMoney.com or call 651-539-1545. House Commerce Committee chair Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, said the number of Minnesotans who had money returned in fiscal 2013-14 more than doubled from fiscal 2011-12.

“This being said, we are still trying to find cost-effective ways to do this even better,” Atkins said. “Not everybody gets their information from a computer screen, including my mom.”

Apparently Prince, Jesson, Klobuchar and Sid Hartman don’t, either.

A Prince associate said he wasn’t aware Prince was in the MissingMoney.com database. Klobuchar didn’t know she was, either. Human Services Commissioner Jesson, who is due money from the Bank of New York and Bethlehem Steel Corp., said she was “pleasantly surprised” when told she was listed on MissingMoney.com.

“I’ve lived at the same address for 26 years,” Jesson said.

Hartman said he was “shocked” and wanted to know who to call.

A typical measure of success is comparing the money returned to people in a year to the total the state took in for the year. Commerce’s return rate has risen from 26 percent in fiscal 2005 to 43 percent in fiscal 2014. Johnson said the national average is about 31 percent.

Yet the returns remain a small and shrinking fraction of the growing $606 million balance. Commerce estimates that about half the recent growth has come from the life insurance companies it has targeted. A series of investigations has resulted in three settlements with MetLife, Prudential and Transamerica. Commerce has also hired four new auditors to go through company books to hunt missing money.

 

Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-673-4683



 

  • Claim your money

    Claim your money

    To see if you have unclaimed property, check the database at www.startribune.com/missingmoney, or go to www.MissingMoney.com. For more information contact Commerce at 651-539-1545.

    Tips to avoid “losing” property

    • Cash all refund, rebate and dividend checks.

    • Respond to shareholder service requests for action.

    • Keep a list of your accounts and include it in your will.

    • Notify companies when you move.

    • Set up automatic withdrawal for safe-deposit box rental fees.

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