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Forgotten Funds and Unclaimed Property Boost California’s Budget

Katie Orr/KQED
Items turned over to California’s unclaimed property office.";

Everyone loves finding money they didn't know they had. Turns out the California government might be a good place to start looking. California keeps track of billions of dollars in property that people have forgotten about or just didn't know existed, everything from jewelry to stock. 

The bag of glittering silvery gems is pretty hard to miss when you walk into  the secured media room at the unclaimed property office near Sacramento. The stones, discovered in a safe deposit box, haven’t been appraised, but they look an awful lot like diamonds.

“There’s a lot of flashy things,” said Ken Parham, an analyst in the California State Controller’s Office. “There’s a lot of really nice things to look at, like the gold bars, like the really nice jade and gold jewelry."

Parham said he’s gotten used to those kinds of discoveries. After more than eight years on the job, he’s more interested in the historical items.

“There’s a congressional gold medal that was issued to the original 29 Navajo code talkers from World War II,” he said.

That medal was recently returned to the soldier’s grandson.

Most people likely don’t have a military award or a bag of diamonds waiting for them, but they may have a few dollars that got lost along the way.

Sacramento State student Sydney Johnson recently typed her name into the state website that lets you check its unclaimed property log. When there aren’t any hits on her name, she decides to look up her dad.

“Hey, my dad has one! That’s my address! That’s so weird. $2.96,” she said.

That $2.96 is noted on the state’s ledger, part of the $8 billion in unclaimed property California has on the books. Say you have a rebate from a utility bill you overpaid, but you move before you find out about it. If the company can’t find you, your money is supposed to be turned over to the state, which will hold it — forever — until you or your heirs claim it.

The physical items in the Rancho Cordova office are fun to look at. But they actually make up less than 1 percent of all the unclaimed property — just enough stuff to fill about 19 vans. In fact, 95 percent of the properties are cash assets. Nearly half are valued at under $25.

Ryan Miller is with the Legislative Analyst’s Office, and studies the unclaimed property program.

“So we’re talking checking accounts, but also insurance properties, stocks, dividends, bonds, things like that,” he said.

About 40 percent of the property finds its way home, twice as much as 20 years ago. Still, Miller says the state has put itself in a delicate situation.

“On the one hand, the program is a consumer protection program. We take this sort of lost, abandoned property and we hold onto it and we have it so people can come claim it,” he explained. “And on the other hand, we count it as general fund revenue and we can spend it each year in the budget.”

Unclaimed property is the fifth-largest revenue source for California’s general fund, bringing in about $400 million a year. That is money the state counts on.

But state Controller Betty Yee stresses that the money can be claimed at any time.

“This money is available for whenever the claim is made and we return it, dollar for dollar,” she said.

Yee said her goal for the program is simple.

“And that is to locate the rightful owners of property that has been turned over to the state because of the inability of companies like banks and insurance companies to locate the rightful owner,” she said.

But many Californian’s aren’t even aware the program exists. Yee has appealed to members of the Legislature to spread the word at their events and put links on their websites. The controller’s office says it returned about $680,000 per day in the last fiscal year. Yee said she hopes more people check the website so they can find what they’re owed.

Copyright 2016 KQED