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Money waits to be claimed

OLYMPIA – Between forgotten paychecks, old stocks, abandoned utility deposits and other financial orphans out there, the odds are now roughly 1 in 2 that your name is among the 3.5 million with unclaimed property held by the state of Washington.

Each year, businesses must turn over unclaimed refunds, escrow proceeds and other unclaimed checks to state revenue officials by Nov. 1. This year, those assets total about $100 million, on top of the $500 million the state was already holding.

“This has been building up since the mid-1950s,” said Mike Gowrylow, a spokesman for the state Department of Revenue. Last year, he said, the state gave back $39.4 million – a record high – to more than 82,000 claimants.

Among those for whom the state has a little holiday surprise: Spokane Mayor Dennis Hession, who’s owed an old $50-$100 judgment. Spokesman-Review publisher Stacey Cowles is due a $25-$50 check from Eddie Bauer. And Microsoft’s Bill Gates Jr. has some stray Bank of America stock, the value of which is listed only as “over $100.”

Most of the amounts are small: a $37 paycheck from a job at Red Lobster a decade ago, in the case of Everett’s Dawn Thompson, or $120 in an old overpayment to an insurance company in the case of Spokane’s Grant Riddle. But particularly in cases of old escrow accounts, the windfall can be thousands of dollars.

As the data roll in each year, the state tries to send a letter to the last known address of anyone with unclaimed assets worth $75 or more.

And it’s not just cash. The state also gets the contents of abandoned safe-deposit boxes. Among the stuff found inside: old coins, photographs, a human leg bone, pornography, a painstakingly cataloged collection of marijuana seeds and a 1960s World Series ring. One box included a bottle of Pepto Bismol and an obviously used spoon. Another, inexplicably, contained a half-eaten sandwich.

“In one box, it had a ski mask, a pair of gloves and some bolt cutters,” said Patti Wilson, the department’s unclaimed property manager.

Every four years, the state auctions the salable stuff off and holds the money in case anyone ever claims it. (The porn was destroyed and the police were called about the pot seeds.)

For big-money assets, the state has hired a “locator” to try to track down the owners and return their cash. One big problem: People hang up on him a lot. “They think it’s a scam,” said Wilson.

But the state keeps calling back, urging the people to see for themselves on the agency’s searchable online database:

In one case, the state tracked down a man owed $1.2 million as the result of stock splits.

“We tracked him down several times and finally convinced him that he needed to claim it,” Wilson said.

Much of the property will never be claimed.

“There’s a heck of a lot of John Does and John Smiths in there,” Gowrylow said of the database. Particularly in the older records, Wilson said, some amounts are listed with only a last name, like Brown. Matching a person to that money is virtually impossible without a receipt or other old records, she said.

But in recent years, the assets tend to come with far better documentation: full names, often Social Security numbers, sometimes even dates of birth.

Most of the money goes into the state’s general fund; some of it goes to pay for the state to administer the program. But it’s essentially a loan to the state. The state’s obligation to pay up anytime someone – or someone’s heirs – legitimately claims the money never expires.

“We hold that money for the owner forever,” Wilson said.