Hundreds of phone calls flooded the state controller's Los Angeles office Monday, as officials began using a new computer system to help return to Californians at least $300 million in unclaimed money, mostly from bank accounts and estates.
The "Claim What is Yours" pilot program was started because the amount collected by the state has increased nearly twentyfold, from $3 million in 1974 to $55 million last year, state Controller Gray Davis said.
In 1986, only about 30,000 of an estimated 1 million people and businesses eligible to collect some of the money came forward.
The computer system reduces to two or three minutes the amount of time it takes to see if a caller has any money coming.
Davis said it used to take up to three days to check a single claim when the information was stored on microfilm and paper documents scattered in seven different files. So far, about three-quarters of those eligible to collect money now have been entered into the new computer system.
Under a 1968 Californian law, money that has gone unclaimed for seven years must be turned over to the state for safekeeping. The state holds the money in a permanent trust that pays 5% interest compounded annually until a lawful owner can be found.
"It is embarrassing that the state only returns 20 cents on the dollar. This is not tax revenue. It belongs to the people," said Davis, who believes it would be easier to return the money if unclaimed sums were turned over to the state after five years rather than seven.
"This new system will prove we can be a lot more efficient," he said.
The largest single amount owed to an individual is $199,773.99, belonging to a Zoe Morrison who is listed as living in Temple City. Another four people are owed more than $100,000 each.
But most of the others are owed considerably less.
More than 500,000 people are owed between $25 and $100. Another 200,000 people are owed between $100 and $1,000, and about 900 people are owed more than $10,000.
Seven controller staff members answering phones on Monday assisted more than 1,000 people who called the special hot line--(213) 852-5221--between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., officials said. About 50 people who think they are due money were mailed forms to verify their claim.
While most callers were disappointed to find out that none of the $300 million belonged to them, others found themselves a little richer.
"I was shocked," said accountant Larry Zimin, who located about $400 he had left in an account at Imperial Savings & Loan.
"I heard a report on the radio about this hot line and figured I would just give it a call thinking I had nothing to lose," Zimin said. "I could use about $10,000, but I'm certainly not about to give back the $400. I'll take what I can get."
Using the computer, the controller's office has already begun to contact charities and businesses who are owed large sums of money. There are no plans to contact individuals.
The Boy Scouts of America received a check for $22,072.42, mostly money from chapters in California that have since folded.
"This came as a total surprise, an unexpected windfall. This new effort is an idea long overdue," said Derek Wilcock, a Boy Scouts assistant director. "We'll, of course, put the money back into the local chapters."