Q&A with Mary McElhone, Deputy for Unclaimed Property
Discussing the annual Safe Deposit Box Auction
Wed, Dec 7, 2011 (5:09 p.m.)
When and what is the Safe Deposit Box Auction, for those who missed it this year?
It’s usually the first Saturday in December. It’s part of the unclaimed property program, which is part of the state treasurer’s office. State Treasurer Kate Marshall is the administrator of our program, and it’s a consumer protection agency.
How does it protect the consumer?
If a business owes another business or another individual money or safekeeping, in this case, if they can’t find that owner after a period of time they have to turn it over to the state as a custodian. Then we’re tasked with trying to find that individual. So the businesses are not allowed to keep money that they owe other people. Just because you’ve moved and they can’t find you anymore doesn’t mean they get to keep it.
What ends up getting turned over to the state?
We get payroll and wages; we get checking account money, savings account money; we actually get securities, stocks, bonds, mutual funds; we get insurance refunds. ... Any money due to another person or another business can become unclaimed property if it’s not returned to the rightful owner. Safe deposit boxes are one of those things. … What happens sometimes is that the owners of these safe deposit boxes pass away and they don’t tell their family and friends that the safe deposit box ever existed. Sometimes people forget about their safe deposit boxes. That happens.
How long will banks hold onto property before trying to find the owner?
It’s called a dormancy period. For safe deposit boxes it’s a period of three years. So once the bank has a safe deposit box and they can’t find you for three years—there’s been no activity, you haven’t visited the safe deposit box—they have to do their due diligence. They have to make a last-ditch effort to find the owner, and if that fails, the safe deposit box contents are actually turned over to the state of Nevada.
What constitutes this ‘last-ditch effort’ on the part of the bank?
They have to send a formal letter to the last-known address. This is required right before they send it to us. There’s a 60-120 day window to give the person time to respond.
If they don’t, what does your office do to try to find them?
We have an annual advertising campaign in 17 newspapers throughout the state. ... If there’s no response there, we also use Accurint, a LexisNexis product that a lot of investigators use. … Accurint tries, with Social Security numbers, to match names to better last-known addresses. We basically get a file back, and with that information we send out notification cards. … We get about a 10-15 percent response on that.
Do people without safe deposit boxes ever call just to see if they might have other unclaimed assets?
A lot of people will check with us on an annual basis just to see if they have unclaimed property. Moving has a tendency to create it because your forwarding address is only good for 6 months, and sometimes you just didn’t know you had an insurance refund with your insurance company.
If you’ve moved a lot, what’s the best way to check?
Our state participates in the only legitimate national unclaimed property search website. It’s called Missingmoney.com, and there are about 40 states that participate. You can go onto that website and you can check other states that you’ve lived in to see if you have money in those states. You should always check. You never know. You think about this dormancy period, in some states it’s five years. Ours on average is three years; payroll and wages is one year. So it’s going to be out there for a while before it actually finds its way to the unclaimed property program, and technically the business that has this money is supposed to be looking for you during that period.
Given the fact that this year’s Safe Deposit Box Auction brought in more than $100,000, how much money is the state of Nevada sitting on in unclaimed property?
We’re now holding over $500 million worth of assets for people to claim. You never lose the right to file a claim and your heirs can file a claim. The program started taking money back in 1981, and that money that we first took in is still available to be claimed.
How much money was turned over that first year?
I think they took in less than $1 million. So the program has grown and grown and grown. We have the property for two years. … And at the end of having it for two years, we end up having an auction. Unfortunately, we just don’t have the space to keep these packages indefinitely. That’s where the auction comes in. So we auction off the items that we can auction off, and if a package brings $100 at auction, we post it to that person’s account, and if they ever come forward or their heirs come forward, they get the $100.
What about things that don’t have material value so much as sentimental value?
There are items that are family heirlooms, so it’s a little heartbreaking when there are old photos and things that you can’t auction off. It does happen, and that’s why we make a really huge effort to try to find these people.
Do people ever come forward after the auction to claim lots that were sold?
We pay over 18,000 claims a year, and that might happen once a month. Whatever we did get at auction, that’s what we pass on to them.
What about the cases where you actually find the person and they get reunited with their treasures? Do you have any good stories about that?
We had a lady who showed up in our office one day, because we have a walk-in window, and she told us: ‘I’ve been to the bank, and I think you have unclaimed property here for a safe deposit box for my deceased husband.’ She pulled out a form, and it was from one of the banks here in town, and on that form was a number—1,500. She told us this story about how her husband, in the last years of his life, was very mentally ill. … He started hiding assets. She said that they had a truck that just disappeared and that it got really sad. Ultimately, he shot himself in the head in front of their business. He committed suicide. So she said things had been really tough for her and her kids, and this had happened 5 years ago. … So we went back and took a closer look, and we realized that the 1,500 on there was not $1,500—it was actually 1,500 $100 bills. We had $150,000 for her that he had hidden in cash in a safe deposit box. So we told her, and she started to shake and turned beet red and started crying. We actually thought she was going to pass out. What a difference it was going to make for her and her three children.
There was another time where we had located this gentleman and he had this safe deposit box, and I remember talking to him on the phone and he said, ‘Gee, I’m really surprised that you have this.’ So he came into the office and we opened up the contents, and he started crying. He’s a Vietnam veteran, and he told us, ‘I can’t believe you guys have this stuff. I went through a divorce, and I thought my ex-wife took it all. These pearls are the pearls that my mother wore on my parents’ wedding day. My father was a Chicago police officer in the days of Eliot Ness, and this is his revolver from when he worked on the police force.’ So he was just ecstatic.
It seems like safe deposit boxes are sort of antiquated. Are fewer people getting them now?
I don’t know, but I can tell you this. Two years ago I went to my bank to open up a safe deposit box. I wanted a bigger one, but the clerk said, ‘This is the only size we have. They are extremely popular.’ A lot of people trust the banks. All they have to hold onto and maybe worry about is a key, and the bank is responsible for the security of that box.
Do people ever make fraudulent claims?
Sometimes people are not sure, where we might just have a name and it’s a common name. … We do have people sometimes who do try to pull a fast one. We do verify, so if there’s a last-known address, they have to prove that they used to live at that address. A lot of the money comes in with a Social Security number attached, so we do ask for social security numbers as proof, and if we get a match we know we have the right person. … We have made two arrests in recent years. It’s best not to mess with unclaimed property because we will prosecute. … It’s one thing if someone’s not sure, and we know that happens, but if you’re out there saying you’re somebody you’re not, it’s not a good idea.
Was there anything really unique in the auction this year?
We had some Not Geld Notes. Basically they’re small pieces of colored paper from the 1920s over in Europe, from Austria and Hungary. After WWI they had hyperinflation in those countries. If you recall, you may have seen pictures in your history book of an individual with a wheelbarrow-load of money going to buy a loaf of bread. They had such hyperinflation that they couldn’t print currency fast enough in large denominations to keep up. Smaller communities started printing these little notes of money to use in exchange.
Do you have an antiques dealer who comes in and looks at everything when you’re pricing such items?
We use two appraisers, a coin appraiser and a jewelry appraiser. Sometimes they’ll look at something and say, ‘I’m not really sure about this,’ so you need to take it to a specialist. So this year we visited a local stamp appraiser, and we also visited a toy appraiser. … Every year we seem to have a theme. Some years it’s diamonds; some years it’s coins; this year it was gold jewelry. One of the major casinos turned over 80 packages to us two years ago, so that was up for auction.
What’s in your safe deposit box?
Silver coins that I’m just saving and some jewelry from my grandmother. I have a couple really old photos that I don’t want anything to happen to. And I also have my wills in there, the original copies. ... If you do have a safe deposit box, make sure your loved ones or someone you trust knows where it is, in what branch and what street and that it exists. ... You can list a few people on the box, and that’s always a good idea.