When state Controller John Chiang took office in 2007, one of his priorities was to return unclaimed property to its rightful owners.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation in August 2007 that allows the state controller to send property owners notices before their money or safety deposit boxes, for instance, are transferred to the state.

In the past two years, Chiang’s office has sent out 2.5 million such notices.

The office started posting properties to its unclaimed property search page on its Web site within weeks after being first reported, rather than taking a year before posting the properties, according to the state Controller’s Office.

Now, individuals or companies can go the Web site, plug in their names to see if there is an unclaimed property attached to it and voila — instant money.

The city of San Mateo, for example, had nine unclaimed property listings on the state Controller’s Web site last week.

Although, the city does routinely check the Web site, it was unaware of this property, said San Mateo Finance Director Hossein Golestan.

"We were hoping it would be $8 million,” Golestan joked. The city is $4 million in debt and recently cut another $4 million from its budget.

The nine unclaimed properties total approximately $1,900 for the city, Golestan said.

"We are in the process of reviewing and substantiating the information in order to file claims. We periodically check the Web site for unclaimed property and also receive notices from the state Controller’s Office on the subject,” Golestan said.

The San Mateo County Board of Education and San Mateo Union High School District also had several listings on the site for unclaimed property as did many nonprofit agencies operating in the county and even former congressman Tom Lantos and former assemblyman Lou Papan, who are both deceased, had unclaimed property listed on the Web site.

"A member of our staff periodically checks this site to see if there is anything we can claim, and has informed me that no property of our office is being held at this time,” said Peter Burchyns, special adviser to the County Board of Education.

While large public entities like the city or county may already be aware of the site it comes as refreshing news to regular people such as Belmont Parks and Recreation Commissioner Dave Warden and county Supervisor Adrienne Tissier.

Warden discovered he was owed $30 from an old Paypal account and Tissier plans to claim property on behalf of her deceased father Bert Tissier.

Warden previously bought and sold lots of items on eBay using multiple Paypal accounts. He, however, forgot some of the passwords and subsequently lost track of the money owed to him.

"All it takes is 10 seconds to check the site,” he said. "I was blown away it was so trivial. I didn’t know it was so easy.”

Warden also found property owed to his wife under her maiden name.

"We’ve been married for 13 years so I found that odd,” he said. He also found another $69 for a friend.

Bert Tissier, who passed in 2004, is owed $92.70 by the California State Automobile Association.

Supervisor Tissier is going to claim the unclaimed property on behalf of her late father, Bert Tissier, Legislative Aide William Chiang told the Daily Journal.

"Her advice to your readers would be to use the state’s Web site and definitely claim any properties that belong to them or their families and to pay attention to any deadlines so property is not unnecessarily unclaimed and lost,” Chiang said.

County Supervisor Rose Jacobs Gibson also appears on the state controller’s list of those due unclaimed property and so does several local nonprofit agencies including Samaritan House, Shelter Network and Second Harvest Food Bank.

For two decades, misguided state laws restricted the state Controller’s Office from contacting the owners of more than 80 percent of all unclaimed property accounts sent to the state, Chiang notes on the Web site.

Since Chiang took over the state Controller’s Office, it has streamlined the process of notifying owners before their property is turned over to the state, established a locator unit to aggressively find owners to reunite them with their property and upgraded the claims processing system to make the search for unclaimed properties more efficient.

But Chiang is not done making tweaks to the system.

He is currently pursuing the following reforms to the system:

• Restore interest paid on claims;

• Protect owners of safe deposit boxes by prohibiting financial institutions from sending them to the state if the owner has other active accounts and requiring banks to hold onto inactive boxes for five years instead of the current three;

• Impose strict penalties on banks, utility companies and other businesses that fail to comply with the law and notify their customers of unclaimed property they are holding.

To see is the state Controller’s Office has some of your unclaimed property go to: http://scoweb.sco.ca.gov/UCP/

Bill Silverfarb can be reached by e-mail: silverfarb@smdailyjournal.com or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 106.

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