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June 9, 1996

There's unclaimed
money in the Net

By Timothy C. Barmann

Bella Brickle, where are you? Henry Henriksen, do you still live in Warwick? Rade Radosevich, have you left Warren for good?

These people are wanted by the state treasurer's office.

But it's not what you think. The treasurer wants to give them money. Or stocks. Or jewelry. Or other property that they have left laying dormant for years.

General Treasurer Nancy Mayer is charged with tracking down the owners of unclaimed property. Rhode Island, like most states, is required to hold such property indefinitely and to try to find the rightful owners.

Two employees from her office do just that by looking through city directories and calling neighbors. That department also publishes the massive unclaimed money list in newspapers once a year.

But in March, Mayer's staff turned to the Internet for help. It launched a World Wide Web site (http://www.state.ri.us/treas/treas.htm) that lists all 40,000 Rhode Islanders who have seemingly disappeared, leaving behind some $50 million worth of property.

Rhode Island is the latest state to use the Internet to advertise its unclaimed property list. Some 18 others have put up Web sites, and more are on the way, according to the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators.

Who are these people that simply abandon bank accounts?

Some have moved and some have died said Richard Coffey, who is the unclaimed property administrator for the Rhode Island treasurer's office.

But many are alive and well.

"Amazingly enough, a lot of them are still at the same address," said Coffey. The amount of money they left was so small, he said, they just didn't want to bother with it.

But the more pressing question is, are these people likely to stumble across their name on some list in cyberspace?

If you think the answer is probably not, take a look at Indiana.

That state put up the first unclaimed property Web site, in March of 1994.

"They laughed at me when I did it," said Stephen Olson, administrator of unclaimed property for that state.

He said his colleagues in other states figured no one would ever see the Web site he put together.

They were wrong, he happily points out.

Since Indiana's unclaimed property list went on the Web two years ago, the amount of money payed out to claimants has increased dramatically. It rose by 300 percent from 1993 to 1995, while amount of unclaimed money the state collected increased by only 25 percent.

"Nothing else changed," said Olson. "It has to be the Internet."

The first success

It was stories like that one that got the staffers at the Rhode Island Treasury Department interested in going on line, said Steve Klamkin, a spokesman for the general treasurer.

"Having heard that other states have had some success with this, let's see if we could do it at a low or no cost," he recalled they thought.

It does cost the department very little. The Web site is actually stored on a computer run by the Secretary of State's office. It was designed by a treasury employee and the only cost so far has been a software program and some staff time, said Klamkin.

The Web site itself is plain and unadorned, unlike some of the other Web sites of state government officials. But it is easy to use. It will be updated quarterly, Coffey said.

The Rhode Island site has already had its first success. Last week, a Rhode Island lawyer searching the Internet site found the name of one of his firm's clients who had died. His firm is serving as guardian for the deceased person's estate, said Coffey.

Once the paperwork is completed, the law firm will be able to get 14 pieces of property the state was holding for that person.

As more people go online, the Internet may turn out to be the most effective tool in tracking them down.

"We're a mobile society," said Olson of Indiana.

"States aren't equipped with staffing to keep up with people. But that kind of technology will always keep up with people."

Where to look

In New England, three states have unclaimed property lists on line:

Rhode Island:

  • http://www.state.ri.us/treas/moneylst.htm


  • http://www.state.ma.us/scripts/treasury/abp.asp


  • http://www.state.ct.us/ott/

    To see a listing of all states on line so far, see the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators Web site at:

  • http://www.unclaimed.org/

    Computer calendar

    Saturday - The Ocean State Internet Society (OSIS) will discuss "Community Networks and Free-Nets" at Roger Williams University, 150 Washington St., Providence from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Immediately afterward, another meeting will be held by FTP, a group advocating user representation on the Ocean State Free-Net's board of directors.

    For more information, call D. Jane Harrop at OSIS at 435-8083, box 2, or send e-mail to osis@osfn.rhilinet.gov. Directions and parking information are available via the Internet at gopher://osfn.rhilinet.gov/11/tech/comp/osis. Cost: Free.

    June 22 - A picnic organized by users of the Ocean State Free-Net is planned for all Free-Net users, family and friends at the Brenton Point State Park in Newport at 10 a.m. Contact Pamela Chatenay-Lapointe by e-mail at ah358@osfn.rhilinet.gov or by phone at 392-0317.

    Timothy C. Barmann is a Journal-Bulletin staff writer. His column runs every other Sunday on the On Line page. Send him comments via e-mail at tim@cybertalk.com or U.S. mail, c/o the Journal-Bulletin, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.