Monday, February 04, 2008

States expand use of unclaimed-property laws to collect billions in assets that owners forgot

Unclaimed-property laws aim to return forgotten assets to owners, but states have expanded their use of such laws to find and hold those assets for themselves, report Scott Thurm and Pui-Wing Tam of The Wall Street Journal. The article includes a state-by-state chart of unclaimed property that would be a great place to start reporting a localized story.

"States have broadened laws to cover unredeemed gift cards and uncashed corporate checks to employees and suppliers," the reporters write. "They've required businesses to turn over assets more quickly, and curtailed efforts to locate owners. And they've strengthened enforcement by hiring private auditors to examine corporate books in search of "lost" property. The auditors' reward: 10 to 15 percent of proceeds."

The Journal reports that as of June 2006, the 50 states together held $35 billion in unclaimed property. On average, they return about a third of it. States vary in their definition of unclaimed property and in their efforts to notify owners. California stopped running lists of seized, unclaimed property in newspapers, but a judge stopped that program temporarily after a former Intel Corp. employee sued after 200,000 shares of his stock were sold by the state. Delaware, a favorite legal domicile for corporations, is another aggressive collector and holder. It returns only 5 percent or so of unclaimed property it collects, and auctions off some assets on eBay. (Read more)

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