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  • Staff photo by Don Himsel
    The savings passbook from a defunct bank exists, as does a 1992 letter from the FDIC saying that the account has been switched to another bank that is now defunct. - but where's the money?
  • Staff photo by Don Himsel
    The savings passbook from a defunct bank exists, as does a 1992 letter from the FDIC saying that the account has been switched to another bank that is now defunct. - but where's the money?
  • Staff photo by Don Himsel
    The savings passbook from a defunct bank exists, as does a 1992 letter from the FDIC saying that the account has been switched to another bank that is now defunct. - but where's the money?
Monday, April 30, 2012

State government has division that reunites people with missing financial property

You never know where you’ll end up when you start poking through messy desk drawers.

You might even end up in the accounting world’s equivalent of a messy desk drawer: the New Hampshire State Treasury’s Abandoned and Unclaimed Property division.

I ended up at that obscure but intriguing corner of state government because a bit of spring cleaning uncovered an old savings passbook. One hundred dollars had been deposited when George Bush the elder was president, more than 20 years ago, and hadn’t been touched since.

My obvious question is: Where’s the money?

As of right now, I’m still not sure. But the search has been fun.

“This is an interesting case,” said Catherine Provencher, the state treasurer, in a phone interview about my situation. “Usually we have the abandoned property and try to find the people who own it.”

There’s no shortage of abandoned or unclaimed financial property for the state to deal with: life insurance payouts whose beneficiaries can’t be found, old stock certificates, refund checks, payroll checks, utility deposits, escrow accounts, you name it. About the only thing they don’t handle is physical property, such as jewelry from abandoned safe-deposit boxes.

My case is unusual because I came to them; usually, it’s the other way around.

“The vast majority of the claimants didn’t even know they were missing money,” Provencher said.

Deputy State Treasurer William Dwyer gave a common scenario: A person dies who is a beneficiary on somebody else’s life insurance policy. When that second person dies, it can be hard to figure out where the insurance payment goes.

Another source of missing funds is the “de-mutualization process” from the last decade, when big insurance companies (particularly MetLife and Prudential) decided to go public instead of being mutually owned.

“The government said you have to issue your policyholders of record a one-time bonus,” Provencher said. “Often, they couldn’t find these people to pay them, and eventually the shares come here. … Sometimes they have addresses from 40 years ago; no wonder they can’t find people.”

Lots of lost money

As of April 10, the division is holding $43 million worth of unclaimed funds. This only counts items discovered in the last three years; after three years, unclaimed money (such as my savings account) moves into the general fund.

About $5 million is sent to the general fund each year. That doesn’t mean it’s lost, however.

Property owners have the right to claim their abandoned money for perpetuity. (Before laws changed in 1985, it took an act of the Legislature to get your money out of the general fund, but now it’s a routine part of the Executive Council’s regular business.)

And a lot of people do get money back.

In the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2011, the state processed almost 9,300 claims totaling almost $6 million, according to department records.

The average claim was $630; the largest was $174,000. My $100 claim seems pretty puny, but that isn’t an issue.

“There’s no minimum threshold,” Provencher said. “If we’re holding dollars for you, you will get it back. Claims range to 2 cents, literally.”

You won’t collect interest on the old funds, but you also won’t have to pay any fees to get it back.

Trying to find it

To claim my money, however, I have to find it – which is proving hard.

It’s hard because New Hampshire Savings Bank is one of the myriad of financial institutions that went belly-up in the early 1990s.

As you may recall, the U.S. had a long banking crisis that saw agents from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and state banking departments regularly swooping down to shut branches and oversee buyouts or mergers.

“The fact that the banks have turned over so many times is a complicating factor here,” Provencher said.

Complicating indeed. Some places went through three or four name changes that are lost to history.

Remember Numerica? Shawmut? Milford Co-op? I don’t, either. Heck, I don’t even remember New Hampshire Savings Bank, where I opened this account.

So, who has my $100, plus interest, now?

My only clue was a 1992 letter inside the passbook saying Dartmouth Bank had “been assigned” my account by the FDIC. But Dartmouth Bank is long gone, too, so that wasn’t any help.

A little online searching found files from Usenet, an online discussion forum that predates the World Wide Web. These claimed that New Hampshire Savings Bank was bought by Shawmut, which was bought by Fleet-New Hampshire, which was subsumed by Fleet National, which was bought by Bank of America.

They had no mention of Dartmouth Bank, which made me suspicious.

Fortunately, Melissa VanSickle, internal auditor with the New Hampshire Treasury, pointed to me to an FDIC site that handles just this sort of query. It, too, said Bank of America is the successor institution. (Score one for good old Usenet.)

Alas, a trip to the Bank of America branch on Main Street hit a new obstacle. The account number in the passbook means nothing to their computers. Presumably, somewhere along the line the account information got lost or otherwise hidden, perhaps when written records were turned into electronic ones.

“In ’92, we weren’t as digital as we are now,” Provencher said. “This makes it a good little case study to follow the trail.”

Online search

There was one other avenue for me to try.

The state is part of a program run by the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators, which allows online search of a national database. You can run the free search at a website called MissingMoney.com, which sounds like a scam but is legitimate.

There’s a lot of database to search through; hundreds of listings of unclaimed property came up when I looked for just the last name Brooks in New Hampshire. (I don’t know how many because only the first 200 of any search are listed alphabetically, which only brought me up to “Brooks, Myra J.”)

Most people don’t know about this search tool, to their detriment. Provencher, in fact, admits that when she became treasurer, it was pointed out that the database showed she had an unclaimed $10 rebate check.

“A co-worker told me, ‘You have abandoned property and should claim it,” she said. “I never even suspected it.”

But the database, like any database, has its flaws. I couldn’t find any listing under either of the two names on the savings account – my wife’s and our then-infant niece – or under my name

So, there I’m stuck – for the moment, at least. VanSickle is on the case; she says there’s a chance my account was aggregated with others, as was sometimes done prior to 1996. So, I still have hope that a little bit of money from the past may return to my wallet.

If nothing else, it’s a spur to do more spring cleaning!

David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com.