New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli oversees about $12.5 billion in unclaimed funds from more than 30 million accounts. The state operates a searchable website for the lost accounts but does not usually proactively try to contact owners of the missing funds, nor does it list the exact dollar amount of the lost funds.
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"A celebrity or a wealthy person doesn't get any special treatment because of that," DiNapoli said.
This means that even though a quick search can determine that Giorgio Armani once owed former BofA executive Sallie Krawcheck some money or that Morgan Stanley is entitled to funds once held by a slew of businesses, including Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase and AT&T, neither will be getting a phone call from the comptroller's office any time soon just because they're well-known.
Since large businesses take part in many transactions, they often forget to tie up every loose end, but many periodically check unclaimed funds sites to file claims. Unclaimed accounts frequently result from moves, bankruptcies or deaths of individuals. Several casualties of the financial crisis, including Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns, have numerous entries.
"I think the most common reason would be mobility," said DiNapoli, about why accounts become unclaimed. "People move and may not keep their contact information up to date so when the bank is trying to contact them, they can't find them if there's no forwarding address."
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Although about half of New York's claims are for amounts less than $100, much larger sums currently lurk in accounts. More than $1.7 million sits unclaimed in one individual's account.
How exactly does someone fail to notice such large missing sums? Well, it's happened before.
In the past year, Florida's chief financial officer, Jeff Atwater, was able to return a fund worth about $1.1 million, a case where money passing from generation to generation became lost along the way.
Atwater oversees more than $1 billion in unclaimed accounts and property from abandoned safe-deposit boxes. Often, these high-dollar accounts contain more clues for tracking down their owners.
"We proactively try to find people for any amount, but there is typically a greater likelihood that there would be a chance to reconnect with someone because the institutions providing this had a little more information," Atwater said about bigger accounts.
No matter how much time has passed, states will return the funds at no charge or for a nominal handling fee once the rightful owner or heir files a claim. For unclaimed tangible property found in safe-deposit boxes, many states also hold periodic auctions, the proceeds of which will be held for owners to claim.