Program improves process of notifying owners of unclaimed property
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - The state Treasurer's Office hopes to roll out an innovative system of using municipal utility bill databases to contact people with unclaimed property.
A pilot program worked well in two Kanawha County towns.
The state is sitting on more than $172 million worth of unclaimed property - usually cash - belonging to more than 922,000 former and current state residents.
While the office maintains an online database and frequently publishes a listing of individuals with unclaimed property, many people still don't know they have money waiting to be claimed.
Last year, Roger Hughes, local government specialist for the Treasurer's Office, began working to find a new way to notify people.
"I just thought, 'Who better to know people in their city than a mayor,' particularly in some of the smaller areas," Hughes said.
Hughes works with local officials in Kanawha, Clay and Roane counties. As part of his job, he frequently reviews lists of unclaimed property totals tied to people living in particular areas.
"I saw these huge numbers," he said. "Nitro had over $300,000, Dunbar had nearly $700,000 and St. Albans had over $1,060,000 - so that's where I had the idea to ask these mayors to help us find these people."
Hughes approached Nitro Mayor Dave Casebolt and St. Albans Mayor Dick Callaway with lists containing names of individuals with unclaimed property tied to city addresses.
Property often becomes "unclaimed" when individuals move and do not receive notices telling them cash or other property is owed to them.
But sometimes people still live at the address tied to the property and are either unaware or have forgotten about bank accounts or other property.
Hughes said Callaway came up with the idea of running the names and addresses on Hughes' unclaimed property list against the city's utility billing database to see if there were any matches.
"I said, 'That's a great idea,' " Hughes said. "Obviously, if people are still paying a bill to the city, they're still there at that address."
Callaway had staff compare the databases last fall. They came up with a list of matching addresses, and the city already has helped residents claim nearly $10,000 worth of property.
St. Albans officials have been working with Hughes to match individuals with their property. They have sent out about a dozen notifications to residents each day.
Callaway said they only do so many each day to avoid overwhelming Hughes, who helps residents complete the claim process.
"We write to them and say, 'Good news, you have some property that you are owed,'" Callaway said.
"They fill out an application form and come by the city building," he said. "We can verify who they are and notarize the application for them. They send it in to the Treasurer's Office, who verifies the claim and issues them a check."
Hughes said the program is working well in St. Albans, and he has begun working with Casebolt to roll out the system in Nitro as well.
"Right now it's working like a charm here in St. Albans, and I'm making people happy," Hughes said.
"They haven't been (receiving) huge sums individually, but you know, everybody's glad to have money out there," he said. "It's just like finding a $20 bill in the laundry."
The St. Albans mayor also serves as president of the West Virginia Municipal League. He said he and officials with the Treasurer's Office hope to present more information on the collaboration at the league's annual conference this year.
He hopes they can start expanding some form of this program to the 232 municipalities across the state.
"Everyone out there has a good possibility that they may have some lost property," Callaway said. "Either they have lost track of it, or maybe they were a part of an estate that left money or properties behind and they didn't even know they have that money.
"This is a good way we can partner with the Treasurer's Office in order to get to these people who do not know they have this property," he said.
State Treasurer John Perdue said he was excited about the new collaboration and is also looking at ways to use existing databases at other agencies to match more people to their unclaimed property.
"We are trying to reach every avenue we can," Perdue said. "With technology today, it's pretty easy to get these matches together."
He said the new tools are important because the amount of unclaimed property the state has continues to grow.
Perdue said his office has returned more than $125 million worth of unclaimed property to state residents. Despite that, the amount of unclaimed property has continued to grow to $172 million today, because the rate of incoming property has risen.
From July through December, the state received nearly $13.1 million in new unclaimed property, more than $1 more than it received during the same period the year before.
"It keeps going up," Perdue said. "We keep returning money but we keep getting a lot coming in.
"Our goal is to get this money back to the rightful owners," he said.
State residents can check if they have unclaimed property by visiting the Treasurer's website, www.wvsto.com.
Perdue also said his office has partnered with the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators to create the website www.missingmoney.com, which allows people to search for unclaimed property across the country, not just in one state.
Contact writer Jared Hunt at email@example.com or 304-348-5148.