BILLINGS — When the mail came saying he had unclaimed property coming, Billings neurologist Dr. Dennis O’Brien thought he was getting scammed.
The letters from a company called DJ Investigations of Indianapolis claimed he has money coming related to a property, but no address was given.
“DJ Investigations has been sending me letters saying I’m the beneficiary of a trust account and can collect about $1,700, if I first pay them $260,” O’Brien said.
He initially refused to contact the company, thinking it was some form of financial fraud.
Big bucks are at stake with unclaimed property.
Americans are owed an estimated $36 billion in unclaimed property ranging from cash and coins, stocks and bonds, jewelry, inheritances and insurance claims, even paychecks and tax refunds.
Last year in Montana, the Revenue Department collected more than $7.5 million from companies and agencies holding unclaimed property. Montana returned a little more than half: more than $4 million on 600,000 claims.
That leaves about $3 million sitting in Helena. The Revenue Department stores the physical property in a highly secure room. The unclaimed cash is invested along with other state funds by the Montana Board of Investments.
It’s the job of Cathy Fitzgerald, officially the citizens services bureau chief, to match up the property with the owners.
Periodic newspaper ads are the traditional way to notify people. The department also sends out about 400 letters a month to likely owners.
“It’s really simple because they just take some information off the letter, the code numbers for us, and type those in at our website. They can submit a claim online,” Fitzgerald said.
People who get a letter sporting an official Revenue Department logo often call to see if the letter is real.
“We encourage them to do that because you can never be too careful,” she said.
The department has just launched a user-friendly “Click for cash” button on its website where people can enter their names and see if they have unclaimed property waiting.
To use this feature, go to www.revenue.mt.gov and then select the “Click for cash” button.
Under Montana law, companies can wait years with no contact by the owner before turning over unclaimed property to the state. The average wait is five years, but companies can keep travelers’ checks for 15 years.
However, during this year’s legislative session, Montana got tougher on insurance companies hanging onto unclaimed property.
A bill signed into law in March requires life insurance companies to search for beneficiaries when a policyholder dies, rather than wait for someone to file a claim. The law also requires insurance companies to check the Social Security Administration’s master death list twice a year to see if a client has died.
“Many times folks have an insurance policy or safe deposit box no one knows about or a savings account at a bank,” Fitzgerald said.
Some people simply forget about bank or security accounts.
Montana used to require potential heirs to sign an affidavit declaring the value of an estate they are claiming. But many people didn’t know how to assess the value, Fitzgerald said, so the state dropped that requirement for claims under $5,000.
Her bureau processes about 6,000 claims a year, but finding unclaimed property rarely brings riches.
“The majority of our claims are between $50 and $200, which to a lot of people is real money. They are very grateful to get that,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re working really hard to return the money.”
Meanwhile, O’Brien should receive his $1,731 in unclaimed property soon.
Before responding to DJ Investigations, he called The Billings Gazette to see check out the company and see if the letters were real.
A reporter’s call to Indianapolis was answered by Diana Rowe, who said she set up DJ Collections as a second job.
She subscribes to an online program and types in a ZIP code to get lists of uncollected money and property. Then she searches the Internet for owners’ addresses and tries to link up the unclaimed property with people like O’Brien.
Rowe wouldn’t name the program she uses.
“I prefer not to disclose that because that would tip him off about getting the money himself, and I wouldn’t get paid,” she said.
Rowe gets paid by taking 15 percent of the claim’s value. That’s $260 on O’Brien’s $1,731 refund, which is apparently coming from an uncollected property tax refund on a Salt Lake City home that he and his wife sold in 1998, after he completed his residency.
The physician could have filed a claim himself after Rowe tipped him off, but he didn’t.
“I’m going to pay her the $260,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do. She did the work and tracked me down.”