SALT LAKE CITY — Early one recent Sunday morning, Ogden resident Jon Hanson woke up and turned on the television. He happened to see some information about a state-run program that sought to return unclaimed money to the rightful owners.
His first thought was to ignore it, figuring it was some sort of scam to unwittingly get people to give out their personal information. But after thinking on it, he decided to visit the Utah Unclaimed Property Division's new website, mycash.utah.gov.
Turns out it was the best decision he could have made.
Hanson, 55, grabbed his laptop to just see if his name would pop up. "So I went in and within seconds it said, 'You have over $100, please send this information.'"
After providing the required information in about 10 seconds, he submitted it.
"Here's what's amazing: that afternoon I got an email saying that my refund had been approved and would be sent out in the mail," he recalled. "On Monday, I got another email that said (the check) had been sent out and on Tuesday, I got the check."
The amount was nearly $500 — not bad for filling out an online query, Hanson said. That good fortune prompted him to perform searches for some relatives as well, which also resulted in recovery of monies for two out-of-state family members — both for more than $100.
"The first thing I said to my wife is … 'Can you believe this?'" he said. Hanson later learned that his unclaimed amount was for a refund from appliances he had returned to Sears about a decade ago and never received money for.
"We must have moved by the time they refunded it," he explained. "We'd forgotten all about it."
He said his family was ecstatic about their unexpected windfall. He also was pleasantly surprised at how easy and efficient the process was using the division website.
The website is easier than playing the lottery and you have better odds of winning.
–Dennis Johnston, Unclaimed Property Division
In the past year alone, the Utah State Treasurer's Office Unclaimed Property Division returned more than $22.5 million to rightful owners, a 34 percent hike over the previous year's record high of $15.8 million.
The treasurer's office has made a concerted effort to increase public awareness of the millions of dollars owed to Utahns from such things as dormant bank accounts, lost stock certificates and uncollected insurance checks. These efforts are literally paying off, said Dennis Johnston, administrator for the Unclaimed Property Division.
During the mid-1950s, state lawmakers passed the Unclaimed Property Act that required the state to make every effort to return unclaimed assets to their legitimate owners. Today, the state manages about $380 million in unclaimed tangible items that are held sometimes for decades, Johnston said.
In March, the division launched its new website, mycash.utah.gov, using radio, television, online news channels and social media to promote it. Visits to the site are on track to reach 2 million by the end of the current fiscal year and the number of claims paid has increased by 112 percent, Johnston said.
The $22.5 million figure represents just over half of the nearly $40 million in unclaimed properties turned over to the state each year.
"The website is easier than playing the lottery and you have better odds of winning," Johnston said. "One in five Utahns has unclaimed money."
A lot of people blow it off and never find out, but I definitely think it's worth doing because there is a lot of money floating around.
–Lisa Loomis, Park City resident
Park City resident Lisa Loomis was one of the lucky "lottery" winners after she was moved — like Hanson, somewhat reluctantly — to visit the website after watching an ad on TV.
"I got on the website and put in my husband's name and nothing came up, like I expected," she said. "Then I put in my name and two things came up."
One item was related to an old address, she explained, while the other was connected to a retail promotion. In the end, Loomis received a check for $846, which she and her husband were able to put to good use as spending money on a previously planned Mexican getaway.
Loomis said she was completely caught off guard when she found out about the unclaimed property, and was even more surprised at how generally easy it was to inquire and how quickly she received the money, in a few weeks.
"A lot of people blow it off and never find out, but I definitely think it's worth doing because there is a lot of money floating around," she said.
Johnston said the average amount returned as unclaimed property is about $180, with the smallest amount being around $5 and the largest amount being approximately $600,000. The six-figure amount was from an individual retirement account that had been held for three years after the owner had changed addresses and the company holding the account was unable to locate the individual.
Johnston was eventually able to find the man and convinced him that he was indeed the owner of unclaimed property worth a small fortune.
"I got him to understand that it wasn't a scam and that I wasn't trying to steal his identity," he recalled. "We got the paperwork put together and he got his money back."
State Treasurer Richard Ellis said he hopes people will continue to search the website to see if they have unclaimed money and spread the word to friends and family.
"It's not your conventional business model," he said. "The more money we send out the door, the better we've done our job."