THE BANK – To paraphrase Capital One, what’s in your safe deposit box? You probably haven’t dumped everything out and gone through the contents since Y2K. Those Confederate war bonds might not be worth much, but that bundle of Microsoft stock your drunk uncle left you could be worth looking into. I am checking to see if my gold bars are still here. They were liberated by my grandfather, Sgt. “Sticky Fingers” Ashby, from a mine shaft in Germany in 1945. His motto was, “To the victors belong the spoils,” although the U.S. Army didn’t see it that way, and, except for visiting hours, we didn’t see Sticky Fingers for 10 years.
The reason I am counting my bars is that the State of Texas is going to build its own vault to hold its gold – not CDs, bonds, paper currency or IOUs, but real gold bars. There may even be room for private citizens and other states to rent space in the vault, thus turning a buck instead of spending it. Let me back up. The state has between $661 million and $1 billion in gold bars stashed in a vault in New York City, and we pay $600,000 a year to some company to keep it. If we build our own big, fat safe deposit box, we can save that $600,000, which is almost enough to fund another special session of the Legislature.
After two years of intense investigating and negotiating, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar selected Lone Star Tangible Assets to hold the bars, then build and operate the Texas Bullion Depository — the nation’s first and only state-administered gold bullion depository. The company’s current depository will be refitted to hold our gold temporarily, while a new Fort Knox “will be located in the Austin area.” Maybe they don’t want us to know exactly where the vault will be built, which makes sense. The temporary lock box may be ready in January 2018, the permanent facility by December 2018.
This brings us to the Unclaimed Property Program. You see, Texas requires institutions, businesses (mostly banks) and local governments to report to the state any personal property that has been abandoned or unclaimed, usually for up to five years. The Texas Comptroller currently holds, and is trying to get rid of, about $4 billion in unclaimed funds from all sorts of sources: forgotten utility deposits or refunds, insurance proceeds, payroll checks, cashier’s checks, dividends, mineral royalties, dormant bank accounts and abandoned safe deposit box contents. The office used to put the lists in big, fat sections in major newspapers around the state, which cost a bunch. Now the names and businesses are online.
Last fiscal year, there were more than 300,000 claims, and the comptroller returned $270 million in unclaimed property to rightful owners. Each year the amount gets bigger. In 2015 it returned $248 million, at that time a record, easily breaking the $205 million in unclaimed property returns in fiscal 2014. Currently, the largest single unclaimed property is $2.8 million, and it’s located in Houston. So you may own several acres across the street from the Galleria and not know it, but someone owns it. The largest claim approved this year: $772,000. The largest payment ever approved was $12.5 million, mostly in stock. The winner was a nameless Houstonian – unlike Lotto winners, property recipients can remain anonymous.
There are also safe deposit boxes. According to the comptroller’s office, when a customer loses contact with his or her bank and misses payment for a safe deposit box rental, the box is eventually drilled and the contents are stored in a secure location by the bank. Once five years have passed from the first missed payment or last contact with the owner, the contents are reported as unclaimed property and sent to the comptroller’s office. As I wrote long ago, over the years, the staff has recovered lots of interesting things including: a bloody glass eye, dried deer legs, a brick, mercury, ashes, Apollo 15 postal stamp covers, 16th century receipt for wool written by Michelangelo’s namesake great nephew, a 4.22 carat diamond ring and a stock certificate Number 1 from Dr Pepper Co. in Waco signed by the inventor of Dr Pepper.
OK, all this time you have been wondering, greedily, “How do I get my hands on my share of that $4 billion?” Simple. Just go to the comptroller’s unclaimed property website at ClaimItTexas.org or call 1-800-654-FIND (3463). If you go to the website, there is a line reading: Search Unclaimed Property. Click on it and up pops a couple of blanks to fill in: Last name, first name or your business and a vow: “I am not a robot.” Then you are asked a picture question, I guess to prevent computers from combing the site. Hope you can handle the grilling. Amounts $25 or less or not listed, but you can make a claim. True story: A few years ago I followed the above procedure and found a check for $1,200 owed me. It’s a long story, but ransoms pay very well.
Here’s an interesting point: Among the current would-be and missing recipients are The University of Texas with 44 funds or quarterbacks or whatever waiting to be claimed. Texas A&M has 23 (including $86.87 owed to the Aggies by Panda restaurants). Baylor has 755, which might cover its legal bills. UH has 40. For some unknown reason, Sam Houston has 49. Exxon comes in with 922 and Shell may be the leader with 2,121 unclaimed funds or contents of its safe deposit boxes (which probably hold more gold bars than those of the State of Texas). This raises two questions: Does the comptroller try very hard to find these potential recipients, and why don’t these multi-billion dollar operations hire a few minimum-pay interns to follow up on the awaiting fortunes? Might be worth their effort. Now it’s time for me to get a bigger safe deposit box.
Ashby is fortune hunting at firstname.lastname@example.org