If someone told you that that there may be free money waiting for you in a vault somewhere, I hope alarm bells would start ringing. They certainly did for me when I discovered the unclaimed property fund.
We live in a scam-ridden society and by this point most folks are aware that anything that sounds too good to be true probably is.
Nigerian prince wants to send you money?
You’ve won a foreign lottery you didn’t enter?
Want to become a mystery shopper and make big bucks?
Advance to “Go” and collect $200?
OK. That last one’s a chance card in Monopoly, but the others are very real scams that have taken many folks for a ride.
All of this is to say that scams are so plentiful, that it’s only natural that we develop a healthy dose of skepticism. But, the state of Oklahoma’s unclaimed property fund is not a scam.
When I discovered the state’s unclaimed property fund I searched for evidence that it was another bogus attempt to fleece the foolish, but after reading an article in The New York Times trumpeting its legitimacy I reached out to the State Treasurer’s office and confirmed that I had in fact found the internet unicorn that is free money.
The unclaimed property fund is a state-by-state repository of unclaimed property that includes everything from deposits and inactive bank accounts to mineral rights, life insurance payments and inheritance.
When someone relocates or there is a break in the communication chain entities are left with money that doesn’t belong to them. They often will try to track down who it belongs to, but they’re not obligated to track you to the ends of the Earth.
So, they often end up turning it over to the state for safe keeping.
According to the state treasurer’s office, over 1 million Oklahomans have unclaimed money waiting for them. How much money? Over $585 million.
According to an article published earlier this year in The New York Times, there is an estimated $43 billion in unclaimed property nationally.
Even with billions of dollars floating in the ether, Tim Allen, Deputy Treasurer for Communications & Program Administration, said it can be hard to convince people that it’s real.
“It seems kind of crazy that there would be an actual state government program that really all we does is give back money to people who have lost track of it,” Allen said. “It doesn’t seem like that’s something the government would typically do, but that’s truly what we do.”
Allen said businesses that lose track have to, by law, turn that money over to the state along with the name and last known address of the people who it belongs to.
“We go about trying to help people get reunited with their money. That’s why we have a website, oktreasure.com, where folks can search for their name, that’s why we publish the latest list of names four times a year. That’s why we run ads on Facebook and Twitter and on television to make folks aware that we have this stuff so we can get their money returned to them.”
The Oklahoma unclaimed property program began in 1967 as a division of the Oklahoma Tax Commission. In 2000, it was transferred to the state treasurer’s office.
“When it got here we were able to increase the amount of money returned each year and we’ve been going gangbusters for the last four years,” Allen said.
In Ken Miller’s second year in office as treasurer in fiscal year 2013, Allen said the department returned a record $18.4 million back to Oklahomans. Then, in fiscal year 2014, the department smashed that record.
“Treasurer Miller is an economist and he had an idea,” Allen said. “In the private sector, if you give your employees an incentive they will perform better. So, under his leadership we started an incentive pay program for the unclaimed property division. The first year we started that program we returned more than $30.1 million.”
Allen said it was coupled with an aggressive marketing push that includes commercials, a social media blitz and the creation of a mascot, Sirius Lee Scisortail.
Allen said those efforts are working.
Due to a large number of recent claims, he said the department has added a night shift to help expedite the process.
“It’s all about awareness,” he said. “Some folks still aren’t aware, but we’re trying hard to make them aware.”
Allen said the largest amount the state ever returned to one person was over $1 million. When the treasury department called the retired Tulsa teacher to give her the good news, she didn’t believe it.
“When she was young, her father bought some stock for her and told her to hang onto it because it might be worth some money someday,” Allen said. “At some point along the way she lost the stock certificates.”
Of course, losing the certificates didn’t invalidate the shares, but the woman forgot about them over time and figured that was that.
“We sent two people out to her house, knocked on her door and said ‘please believe us,’” Allen said. “When we brought a check for her she saw the light.”
Allen said it was a life-changing experience for that woman, and delivering good news to Oklahomans is a rewarding experience.
“It’s a very fun job once you get people to believe that we really are here from the government and we really are here to help,” he said.
To see if you may have money waiting for you, Allen suggests Oklahomans visit oktreasure.com.
Unclaimed property information is also published once a quarter in The Transcript, most recently on Dec. 17.
Allen said claiming the money is usually a simple process and the state treasury is committed to reuniting Oklahomans with their money as fast as possible.
Once ownership is proven and proper paperwork is filed, the state fills applicants in on where the money came from and aims to process claims within 90 days.
“This is a free service,” Allen said. “We don’t charge for this at all. There are places out there that will try to scam you on this thing, but this is not a scam and it is a free service [the state treasury dept.] offers. There is no charge for doing this. They should always go through the state treasurer’s website, oktreasure.com. You click on the ‘enter here’ button and that takes you to the searchable database.”