- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 12, 2005

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Passage of the 2002 corporate reporting law and other changes in corporate governance have caused a large increase in the amount of “unclaimed property” money being collected by all 50 states, state treasurers said.

That means a growing number of Americans could collect large piles of money, if they only knew where to look. A Baton Rouge man recently learned that Louisiana owes him about $750,000 in stocks and dividends from an investment account he had lost track of years ago.

“When somebody shows up, you give them their money,” said John Kennedy, Louisiana’s treasurer. “But most people don’t know it’s there.”

States collected $22.8 billion in 2003 in money belonging to people who didn’t come forward to claim it — a 44 percent increase over the $15.8 billion they collected in 2000, according to surveys by the Lexington, Ky.-based National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators.

In the past, cash flowing into so-called “unclaimed property funds” came mainly from uncashed payroll checks, abandoned bank and brokerage accounts, and inheritances that the heirs were unaware existed.

Several factors have caused the recent spike, state treasurers said. Passage of the bill named for Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, Maryland Democrat, and Rep. Michael G. Oxley, Ohio Republican, forced companies to tighten their auditing processes, leading them to hand over more unclaimed money to governments, said Benny Spann, head of Louisiana’s unclaimed property division.

Jeb Spalding, Vermont’s treasurer, said another reason is a change in the insurance business.

Many mutual insurance companies, owned by policyholders, have reorganized to become publicly traded companies. As a result, policyholders have received billions of dollars in stock and cash from insurers’ initial public offerings — though many don’t realize it.

Mr. Kennedy said he faces one persistent obstacle when trying to persuade the public to come forward and collect. When a state government official talks about passing out free money, people with suspicious minds immediately think it’s an “evil government trick.”

Said Mr. Kennedy: “I still have people who say to me, ‘I know you’re just trying to get my Social Security number so you can hit me with back taxes.’”

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