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Published: Thursday, 8/9/2001

The state and its hoops

Ohio's Division of Unclaimed Funds has a problem. Though it touts the existence of money it has received on behalf of others - insurance payments, bank deposits, tax refunds and the like - it has developed ridiculous standards for returning it to those to whom it belongs.

For example Frank Callahan, trying to get $422.30 sent by a life insurance company to a post office box abandoned 30 years ago, was told that his Social Security number and birth date aren't sufficient. They want him to come up with the old post office box number. Honest. And prove his connection to the insurer.

The state's own record retention system doesn't go back 30 years on most things. Why expect a citizen to remember an old post office box number, or even an address? There must be a better way.

The unclaimed cash fund has grown to $216 million this year, up from $180 million three years ago, attesting to the problem.

For John Barthold, of Holland, the barrier is his inability to prove that he lived at his parents' Perrysburg address 37 years ago, when the Bank of America of Illinois sent him a check while he was overseas in the service.

It isn't clear why the $535 check wasn't forwarded. He'd lived with his parents for 30 years. But almost no one saves bills, papers, correspondence that long. And how does one find long-lost neighbors, friends, teachers, and the like? It could cost him the full amount to hire someone to do it.

In both cases the sendees did not identify people using Social Security numbers, so those numbers, never meant for commercial identification anyway, but frequently used for that today, do not suffice.

To be sure there are fraudulent claims to guard against; but the state should take some responsibility in finding people to whom the money they guard belongs. More than publishing their names and the amounts due, and collecting interest on the deposits. It has resources exceeding those of average citizens and could put them to good use.

Perhaps giving more populous counties control of their unclaimed funds, since they seem to have a better record at locating people for whom the money is intended, is in order, as Lucas County Treasurer Ray Kest suggests. It might also be possible for larger counties to contract with smaller ones to do their work as well.

One thing that is clear - in addition to the fact that banks, insurers, and the like are too quick to give up on locating people to whom they owe money - is that the state's sluggishness in these matters must stop. Otherwise voters will rightly suspect that officials are more interested in maximizing the unclaimed funds returns than in seeing them in the hands of their rightful owners.

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