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Trash and treasure: State agency collects, returns abandoned property from deposit boxes

Feb. 8, 2013
 
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The Wisconsin state Treasurer's Office holds the contents of safe deposit boxes that include lots of items that might not hold considerable value. Items that have monetary value are auctioned, with the proceeds held for an owner by the office. Items deemed to hold no value are eventually destroyed. / Gannett Wisconsin Media photo by Ben Jones
Wisconsin state Treasurer's Office employees Wesley Stefonek and Terry McKnight inventory the contents of abandoned safe deposit boxes on Jan. 15 at the state Treasurer's Office in Madison. / Gannett Wisconsin Media photo by Ben Jones

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MADISON — Safely guarded in a secure state of Wisconsin vault is someone’s g-string made with fake pearls.

That undergarment is one of scores of missing and forgotten items held by the state Treasurer’s Office in Madison.

One of the few duties this agency has is to collect and return certain kinds of lost or abandoned property to its rightful owners. The agency holds on to various kinds of unclaimed funds that aren’t held in safe deposit boxes, like forgotten bank accounts, stocks, or life insurance policies. In all, it returned more than $35 million of unclaimed property last year.

And every year, the office receives from Wisconsin banks hundreds of abandoned safe deposit boxes, which by law become abandoned after a person misses five years of bank rental payments.

While the state works to find the owners of these boxes, it doesn’t keep these items forever — including the g-string.

By law, the state treasurer must dispose of unclaimed property. Per its policy, the office disposes of most items within two years of taking possession. However, treasurer’s staff say their focus is on returning property to the public.

“We’ve really tried to push our outreach efforts to let people know about unclaimed funds and getting money back to people,” said Scott Feldt, the deputy state treasurer. “That’s our major effort, that’s why we are here.”

But a Gannett Wisconsin Media I-Team review of inventory records indicates the state routinely discards items like birth certificates, mortgage papers and photographs, many of which don’t have monetary value.

How the process works

The safe deposit boxes arrive by courier to the Treasurer’s leased third-floor office in the U.S. Bank Plaza in downtown Madison.

“(Banks) do due diligence to find the owners,” Feldt said. “After that due diligence has ended, they then send those items to the state Treasurer’s office.”

Some of the boxes contain unusual items like the g-string.

More commonly, they hold coins and jewelry, old stamps and personal documents, like wills and marriage certificates. The office attempts to find to find the owners of these boxes. It publishes lists of people owed unclaimed property in various newspapers and lists names in a searchable online database.

It promotes these efforts with public events, radio, television and newspaper interviews. “Are we trying as much as possible to get out there?” Feldt said. “Yes.”

Recently, the agency’s director for unclaimed property, Mary Celentani, flew to New York to hand out a check on Good Morning America.

Unusual discoveries

The Gannett Wisconsin Media I-Team used the state’s Open Records Law to determine what the office holds and destroys. The inventory records indicate people have different ideas of what’s worth saving.

One box, belonging to a Franklin resident, contained a band-aid box and two toe nails, wrapped in tissue. All one box contained was an empty envelope. Another box contained nothing but spoons. One box contained a Rolex box, but alas, no Rolex.

According to the staff of the Treasurer’s Office, over the years they have opened boxes with guns. Those are turned over to the state Capitol Police, which makes sure the guns were not used in a crime. The firearms will be sold at an upcoming police auction, according to Cynthia Kaump, director of communications and community service.

In the 1990s, the staff opened a box containing a brick of cocaine, Feldt said.

That box was turned over to police, as was a box containing pornography that was related to a police investigation. One box contained dental gold, teeth still attached. The gold sold for around $1,000. But most boxes contain more mundane things like $2 bills and bicentennial coins. On one recent day, Wesley Stefonek, the office’s manager of securities and safekeeping, inventoried a box that held floppy disks for a computer that has likely been long discarded.

“The philosophy always is we want to try to return those items back to their rightful owners, whether they are safety deposit box contents, whether they are securities, stocks and bonds, whether they are jewelry, anything that rightful owner has claim to ...” Feldt said.

Why owners aren't found

Quite often, owners of unclaimed safe deposit boxes don’t step forward. For some boxes listed on the state’s inventory, the owner is listed as “unknown,” with no name or address listed. These boxes contained items including old coins, a locket and gold pin and a gold ring with blue and clear stones. Other boxes belong to owners like Vivian Bristow of LaCrosse, who will never step forward. Online records indicate Bristow died in 2001. She left behind a safe deposit box that contained her birth and marriage certificate, along with other family records.

The state’s inventory indicates Bristow’s items were destroyed.

Sometimes there’s another reason why owners don’t claim their property. In many cases, the owner must pay hundreds of dollars in unpaid safe deposit box rent and bank fees before they can get their items. Stefonek said he informs people of these fees via a letter. He encourages them to send a check to the Treasurer’s Office.

“(If) they will write a check to us that will clear, we will send it to the bank,” Stefonek said. “When we have record of that we will ship the contents.”

Stefonek said occasionally a bank will waive the fees, but that is at the bank’s discretion. So owners have to decide if the items in the box are worth the fees.

Rekha Prasad of Waukesha would have to pay $725 to obtain a passport, mortgage documents and a Bank of India receipt. “I’m not interested,” she said, hanging up the phone.

Ruth Crockett, formerly of Milwaukee, would have had to pay $348 to claim a walkie-talkie in her deposit box.

“We are aware of the safe deposit box but just have not gotten together the moneys to get it,” said a woman who identified herself as Crockett’s daughter.

Frederick Sala, formerly of Janesville, also had no interest in claiming his deposit box, according to his daughter Barbara Gerren. The box, which was destroyed, contained various papers, including a vehicle title. “That car’s been long gone,” Gerren said.

Sell, hold or destroy?

When an owner doesn’t step forward, the office uses a trained staff member, and sometimes a contracted appraiser, to determine the value of the items in the boxes. Some of the items are sold in monthly eBay auctions. The office holds the proceeds for the owner in the event someone later claims them.

In January, the office sold 15 rings on eBay for a grand total of $1,621. One of the more valuable rings, which held four full-cut diamonds and a ruby sold, for $134.50.

But many of the abandoned boxes don’t hold diamond rings. These items, which are often then destroyed, may still carry sentimental value or special significance to the owner or next of kin.

The I-Team review found the boxes contain many items with no monetary value such as photos, birth certificates, marriage certificates, baptism certificates, a social security card, passports, wills, mortgage documents and military discharge records. These items, the office eventually discarded.

“Statutes say, that if items do not hold any commercial value, then they are destroyed,” Feldt said.

In contrast to Wisconsin, Iowa holds the non-valuable contents of safe deposit boxes for 10 years before it destroys them. “Certain things we might hang onto a little longer,” said Karen Austin, the deputy treasurer there. Illinois holds onto the contents of safe deposit boxes for at least five years. At that point it auctions some valuable items.

“(But) some items are never sold, held in perpetuity, such as photographs, war medals and firearms,” said Melissa Han, a public information officer with the Illinois State Treasurer’s office. “Photos and war medals mean the most to the people who earned them or who are in the photographs or took the photographs. “Ink pen and paper clips we throw away.”

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