Find Mass. money – and then wait
Treasurer’s office has canceled ads to slow down claims
If you have unclaimed property listed with the state treasurer’s office, don’t make plans to spend it – or even get it – any time soon.
After years of urging people to search the listings and put in a claim for money or property they may have forgotten about or been unaware of that was left by a deceased relative, officials in the office’s Unclaimed Property Division are slowing down the process and ratcheting back the formerly ubiquitous radio ads because the department is overwhelmed with inquiries.
Up until last fall, people submitting claims were told it could take up to 12 weeks for a check to be issued, but those were usually for the most involved claims, with simple individual claims resolved in much less time.
But now, with a new website that makes searching the $2.4 billion in unclaimed money in Massachusetts easier, and after partnering with a national association of state treasurers on a collective website, the number of claims is overwhelming the 12-person workforce. Even adding two new positions did little to stem the flood of claims.
Unclaimed property is money or property – dormant checking or savings accounts, abandoned safe deposit boxes, forgotten life insurance policies or securities, among other assets – that has gone untouched for at least three years, or 15 years in the case of traveler’s checks.
Bracken said last summer the office replaced its 15-year-old website that was inefficient for wide searches and replaced it with a new system that, unlike other agencies in the state that have run into technology problems, works like a charm. With the old website, the office processed about 50,000 claims in 2016. In just the last six months of 2017, there were more than 60,000 claims.
From fiscal year 2010 to 2014, the unclaimed properties office spent about $5.5 million a year, with advertising ranging from a low of about $400,000 in 2010 gradually increasing to $2.7 million in 2014, mostly through print ads. But beginning in fiscal 2015, the division’s budget ballooned to more than $12 million a year, with advertising jumping to more than $5 million a year, mainly from radio.
In addition to hiring new customer service representatives and a new claims investigator and doling out more overtime, Bracken said the office canceled its radio advertising last November to try to slow down the applications. For the past three years, the treasurer’s office has spent about $5 million a year advertising the unclaimed property, mostly on the airwaves. Now, that’s limited to just printing the lists in newspapers, which the office is required to do by law.
“Technology is working like it should but we have to adjust as we move along,” said Bracken. “Three months in, we’re taking corrective steps. We’re constantly adding another fix. We don’t have it yet, but hopefully we’re going to get it right.”
Bracken said with people at home and a computer on their lap, a lot of claims are getting filed on weekends and waiting for employees when they come in Monday morning, the highest volume day of the week. With technology advances around the country and the proliferation of heir finders scraping the sites and finding the owners – for a fee – Bracken said Massachusetts is not alone in seeing claims ramp up and trying different approaches to deal with the onslaught.
But it seems other states have been able to deal with the rush. In Illinois, for instance, which processed about $159 million for about 58,000 fulfilled claims in fiscal 2017, the state’s unclaimed property office has a turnaround time of several weeks for “clean” claims, said Greg Rivara, a spokesman for Illinois Treasurer Michael Frerichs. In fact, said Rivara, the state doesn’t even require people to file a claim if it’s under $500 and they can be verified as Illinois residents.
Bracken, who was hired by former treasurer Steven Grossman to invigorate what was then a sleepy department that processed about $15 million to $25 million a year in claims, said his nine customer service representatives still process claims over the phone, which takes them away from processing the 600 to 1,000 claims a day that come in through the technology portal. Last year, the office sent out checks for more than $60 million. In October, the office stopped telling people their claims could take up to 12 weeks and instead informed them it will take up to 24 weeks – and that’s if all the documentation is in order.
“We wanted to be transparent,” said Bracken. “We’re not meeting the 12-week [timeline.] It’s not that we’re not meeting our targets. We have too many claims.”
All claims go through a three-step process of an initial review by a customer service rep, followed by a more detailed search by one of four investigators, and then the final scrub to make sure there are no counterclaims or outstanding liens by government agencies. It takes about three months for the first phase, two months for the second, and about a month for the third before the approved claim is sent to the state comptroller to issue a check, which takes up to 21 days more. As of the beginning of February, the office was dealing with second-stage claims dated in early November.
Bracken concedes squeaky wheels get greased. He said if someone calls to complain about the length of time their claim is taking, those calls go to him and he will expedite the process if he sees the paperwork is in order.
But Bracken doesn’t think the extended timeframe for getting money to people who didn’t realize they had it will stop them from filing.“People think money’s money,” he said. “Whether the state owes you $10 or $10,000, you’re going to file.”