Washington state has more than $830 million in unclaimed assets, and Frank Marshall with the Department of Revenue is working to find the rightful owners.

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If you get a phone call from a Frank Marshall with the state’s Department of Revenue, consider yourself a lucky person.

He’s not contacting you looking for unpaid taxes, as some answering his calls fear.

Marshall wants to send you money, maybe even a big, big chunk of cash, from the state’s kitty of $830 million in unclaimed assets, mostly money from long-forgotten bank accounts, customer overpayments, life-insurance policies, uncashed paychecks, mutual funds or safe-deposit boxes.

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A year and a half ago, Walcott Denison, of Owendale, Mich., got a call from Marshall about $670,000 due him and his sister from the estate of their dad, who once lived in Seattle and had bought some securities.

“It was a bit of a shock. Holy smokes,” remembers Denison.

For the past 10 years, Marshall has had a unique job with the state, the only person assigned to this task: finding people who have unclaimed property.

“My job is a cross between being a supersleuth detective, and Santa Claus,” says Marshall.

A former Army intelligence analyst, Marshall, 54, is passionate about his job.

Out of his Olympia office, Marshall scours electronic databases and loves the challenge of finding “ghosts,” people who seemingly have disappeared.

He once tracked down a guy owed money through a girlfriend living at the same address.

“This guy was in a witness-protection program. He was shocked that I found him,” says Marshall.

Not the only one

Every state has an unclaimed-property program.

It is said to be one of the original consumer-protection programs, sometimes referred to as the W.C. Fields Law, named after the legendary comic and actor who died in 1946. His heirs spent years contacting hundreds of banks around the country to locate his assets.

The law requires businesses to review their records each year to determine whether they hold any funds, securities or other property that has been unclaimed.

Claims can be made in perpetuity.

In this state, the $3 million program and all its paperwork is funded from the money that comes in as unclaimed property.

Last year, says the department, $90 million came in, and $45 million was paid out. The difference goes into the general fund.

Of course, if everyone owed money asked for it at once, the state would have to scramble.

But the reality is that the state has to campaign to have people claim their money.

The department has a website, claimyourcash.org, in which you can type in your name and see what is owed you. Notice that the Web address doesn’t mention “Department of Revenue,” so as not to scare off people.

The site is free, unlike the spam email that you might get offering the same service for a fee.

The department even goes out to fairs to promote the site, giving out water bottles and pens.

And one day a week, Marshall works out of his home, which helps a lot when he phones people who have caller ID. When calling from the department, the caller ID will show “unknown,” and people frequently won’t pick up. When using his home phone, Marshall’s name shows up.

Amounts vary

For many people, the few minutes spent with paperwork might not be worth the average refund amount of $215.60.

Yes, there are big chunks of unclaimed assets, but 68 percent of refunds are between $25 and $100. Only 3 percent are above $1,000.

Still, if you have five or six such claims, that can add up. The state has 3 million claims in its database, many of them for the same individual or business.

Except for last year, Marshall spends his time tracking down people with claims of $5,000 or more.

In 2010, because of the bad economy, he also contacted people with claims of $500 or more.

“I had people being very thankful for those smaller amounts,” says Marshall. “They’d tell me, ‘My unemployment just ran out.’ “

It is a source of bafflement and frustration for Marshall as to why some people — especially those with large amounts owed — don’t pursue the claims.

“Sometimes it involves a death that they have to revisit, with issues of a parent passing, or a child passing,” he says.

“Some people use the excuse of having to pay taxes. But sometimes it’s not even a taxable situation; that was all dealt with. I think people just procrastinate.”

Roundabout search

Marshall can only shake his head when talking about, well, the guy who finally called him from France.

In this case, it involved the contents of a safe-deposit box in the man’s name.

Besides what appeared to be various silver ornaments and an old Rolex watch, it contained something quite astounding: An old 5-by-7-inch leather notebook with 15 pages of sketches, often of naked women.

On the first page was handwritten, “Paris Picasso 12 Mars 1912.”

Marshall doesn’t know if these are authentic Picasso originals, but he certainly thinks the owner should get them.

He found the owner by tracking down an address associated with the safe-deposit box, which used to be a downtown Seattle art gallery. He tracked down a woman in Seattle with the same last name as one of the owners, who turned out to be the sister of the man he was looking for. She called her brother in France, and he called Marshall.

Now all that had to happen was for the man to sign a notarized statement authorizing his sister to pick up the sketches.

“It’s been months. I haven’t heard anything,” says Marshall.

More stories of his searches?

One woman in Reno told Marshall she was the executor of her parents’ estate, and to just send her the $30,000 to $40,000. Marshall continued his research and found the woman’s sister, in Portland, on disability, who should, and did, get half the estate.

Another story involved $30,000 in stocks issued to a now-divorced couple.

The guy told Marshall, “That’s all mine. She’s not getting any of that.”

Marshall asked the guy to send him the divorce decree; he never heard from the guy.

Marshall contacted the ex-wife, who sent the divorce decree. It’s “silent” about how such property is to be divided, which means 50-50.

Another story involved a guy who used to be an executive at a well-known software firm, and now is head of another company.

He’s got about $750,000 in cash and shares coming to him.

Marshall sent letters to homes the guy owns here, in Montana and in Colorado. No response.

Finally he tracked down the exec’s administrative assistant, and finally Marshall was able to settle the claim.

Marshall starts his workday at 6:30 in the morning, so he can make calls to different time zones.

He looks forward to each day.

“It’s like working on a puzzle, putting pieces together, thinking outside the box. And then everything falls together,” he says.

So if a Frank Marshall shows up on your caller ID, make sure to pick up the phone.

Then you can hear Marshall say, “Are you sitting down?”

And you can shout, “Holy smokes!”

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com

Here’s a list of some well-known local names — or at least people who have a name like that of the well-known person — who have money coming to them from the Department of Revenue. Yes, some of these folks have been dead for a while, but the database still holds money for their heirs.

• Ivar Haglund, over $100 from Regence BlueShield.

• William H. Gates, over $100 from Bank of America for an “STK redemption.”

• Dan K. Savage, over $100 from a checking account.

• Paul G. Allen, $25 to $50 from Allstate.

• Emmett Watson, $50 to $100 from Premera Blue Cross.

• Kemper Freeman, $25 to $50 from Sears.

• Craig McCaw, over $100 from the law firm of Davis, Wright Tremaine.

• Ichiro Suzuki, over $100 from Farmers Insurance.

• Kenny G. (Gorelick), unknown value stock from Redhook Ale Brewery.

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