No fox in Hoosier chicken coop

Friday, August 12, 2011

Not since Mark Patrick and the "Hoosier Millionaire" TV game show went kaput or Jim Shelton folded the tent on his pick-a-pocket show has there probably been a Hoosier happier to give away big bucks.

Big check. Big grin. Big moment as Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller was in Greencastle this week to present a "significant" check for an undisclosed sum of unclaimed money to local resident Kent Mecum.

Considering the financial plight of most states in these topsy-turvy economic times, there is quite the irony in the state of Indiana seeking out residents to give money to. Yet that's exactly what the Indiana Unclaimed Money effort is all about.

And Indiana isn't shy about it. Television commercials tout the effort. Radio plugs persist. Newspaper and billboard ads promote the little green dog -- no doubt named Buck -- created from a folded dollar bill.

I'd dare say about 49 other states would probably look at the more than $350 million in unclaimed assets, and say something akin to the legal version of "you snooze, you lose" and abscond with the cash.

Not Indiana.

Last year alone the state returned more than $40 million to Hoosiers who didn't even know they had lost it. And we're not talking about amounts like the change you find in the bottom of the dryer.

At the State Fair the other night, Zoeller found a Hoosier visitor $36,000. And that wasn't the first big money he has uncovered.

Between southern Indiana locations on a recent trip, the attorney general was looking for a successful stop like Wednesday's visit to Greencastle. Being from around New Albany originally, he checked a familiar name from that area and discovered $12,000 in retirement funds one Hoosier thought had long vanished when his former company went belly up.

Turns out those funds had been kept in a trust, and once Zoeller's acquaintance found his money, he alerted other retirees. They, too, have benefited from the Indianaunclaimed.com effort that just might turn your computer into your personal ATM machine.

"I think of it as the 'Lost and Found Division' of Indiana government," Zoeller told us.

He is apparently the only state attorney general who runs the unclaimed property division. Most states turn the job over to the state treasurer, which is more than a little like letting the fox guard the chicken coop.

"The attorney general serves consumers in an individual capacity," Zoeller said. "In Indiana, it's a little different approach than having it maintained through the treasury."

More like Robin Hood on the right side of the law.

Unclaimed property includes investment earnings, insurance proceeds and benefits, wages and money from savings and checking accounts. Less than one percent of unclaimed assets are tangible, physical items, such as those found in safe-deposit boxes. Unclaimed property does not, however, include abandoned vehicles or real estate.

"It is a privilege and a pleasure for my office to be charged with getting the money back into the hands of its rightful owners," Zoeller said.

Yet when he left Greencastle, the attorney general was headed to Danville, not to pass out more money but to file suit against a Florida-based "foreclosure rescue" company.

"Now, back to our regularly scheduled program," he interjected as a dose of reality.

The defendant in that case is one of those companies that promises to help you keep your home and lower your mortgage rate, then ends up "taking your money and running off with it."

While his office usually finds itself immersed in such fraud cases and other irregularities, the unclaimed money effort provides them an enjoyable diversion, Zoeller concedes.

"On the worst of the worst days," he said, "when I get past frustrated and past angry, and I'm having a bad day, I can always a take a little time and do some unclaimed money.

"Bringing a check like this," Zoeller said, pointing to the lottery-sized one he presented to Mecum, "makes my day."

Seeking out the recipients has been fun, he says, especially being able to give money back to those who can really use it.

Sometimes it's a college student who paid a utility deposit while away at school and never reclaimed it when he or she headed off to a new home after graduation. Consider that post-graduate pizza and beer money.

But it certainly can mean more than that to many recipients. Lately Zoeller and his group have even gone to homeless shelters, looking to connect Hoosiers with their missing money.

"Those have been rewarding visits," he assured, "especially when a few hundred dollars can make such a big difference to someone."

And that someone could be you.

There are 1,281 Putnam County unclaimed properties in the system, totaling $711,518.

If you don't want any of it, I suggested it be deeded over to me.

"I don't think that's the way it works," Zoeller smiled.

True. But the way it does work is well.