When The Seattle Times last looked in on Frank Marshall, Washington's official locator of people with unclaimed property, the state held $830 million owed to citizens. In seven years, the amount has grown to $1.3 billion -- but not because Marshall isn't doing his job.
OLYMPIA – Year after year, it just keeps happening to Frank Marshall.
Every week, the dubious call the state’s Department of Revenue and ask about him. Sometimes they call The Seattle Times, which profiled Marshall in 2011.
The answer is always the same:
Yes, he is for real.
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No, he’s not running a scam.
If Marshall is trying to reach you, it’s your lucky day. There is money waiting for you.
For 17 years he’s had a one-of-a-kind job with the Department of Revenue: official locator in the unclaimed assets division.
His job is to connect people with long-forgotten bank accounts or safe-deposit boxes, unclaimed life-insurance policies, uncashed checks, customer overpayments and mutual funds.
Marshall has diligently closed 11,000 cases, and returned over $300 million to the rightful owners. That’s right, $300 million.
“Everybody knows somebody,” he says. “You just start searching in broader and broader circles, and you eventually connect.”
And yet, despite Marshall’s skills in tracking down people, the state is holding more unclaimed money than ever.
In 2011, when The Times first profiled Marshall, it was $830 million. Last year, it had grown to $1.3 billion.
Every year, state law requires businesses to review their records to determine whether they hold any funds, securities or other property that has been unclaimed. The amount of unclaimed property jumped after the state had an amnesty program for businesses, in which penalties were waived for failing to report the amounts.
The program ended in ended in October 2017. Now, penalties for companies are 10 percent of the amount of property that’s not reported. On $100,000, that’s a $10,000 hit.
Not a week goes by that Marshall doesn’t track somebody down and hear how much the unexpected money meant to them.
Recently, Katherine Ferguson, 37, of Mount Vernon, got about $12,000 from life-insurance policies her late mother had taken out.
Ferguson has a young daughter and, she says, suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. She had been living in the Fort Worth, Texas, area in subsidized housing, but had lost that home, she says.
With the $12,000, she bought a used car and moved back to Mount Vernon, “where I’ve lived most of my adult life and know people.”
In the cubicle where Marshall works, there is a 3-by-4-foot bookcase stacked with the paperwork for the past two years of cases, about 1,300 of them. It’s a little surreal to know that adds up to $47.3 million.
As it turns out, many people don’t want to be found and others don’t care, even if it’s a sizable amount.
Marshall, 61, says the large number of techies working in this area poses location problems.
“They’re fairly transient. They move around a lot. They don’t own a car. They don’t own property. They use cellphones that aren’t registered. They use burner phones (the kind you buy and use a temporary disposable phone number). They’re tech-savvy and try to erase an electronic trail,” says Marshall.
A former Army intelligence analyst, he uses skills familiar to journalists to track down people owed money.
He has access to services that do background searches – last known address, family members. He uses Facebook, LinkedIn and other social-media sites.
All states have unclaimed property laws, sometimes referred to as the W.C. Fields Law, named after the legendary comic and actor who died in 1946. Afraid of being robbed while he worked in the vaudeville circuit, Fields opened bank accounts in some 700 places. After his death, his heirs spent years contacting banks around the country to locate his assets.
His first year on the job, Marshall returned $1 million worth of unclaimed funds. He got better and better, and the next year he returned $2 million and in recent years, it’s been around $24 million a year.
That $24 million is about one-third of a total $72 million returned in 2018, the rest coming from forms automatically mailed to a person’s last known address or from people going online at ClaimYourCash.org.
That website is run by the state. You just type in your name and see what pops up.
But lower your expectations.
Three-quarters of unclaimed property is under $100 and only 5 percent is over $1,000. Still, you could have a bunch of items that add up to an OK sum.
It’s a public site, so you can look up well-known people, such as William H. Gates, who has a $50-100 refund or rebate from Qwest Communications. Or Jeff Bezos, owed “over $100” from a transportation company.
You can also go to Unclaimed.org, run for free by the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators, and look up other states.
There are services that’ll tell you they have found unclaimed property and want a fee, but you find out for yourself on the listed websites.
“Is your name DONALD TRUMP? Have you used the address of 350 E FORDHAM RD BRONX NY 10458?” T-Mobile has some bucks for you.
Not all states have a full-time locator.
In Oregon, for example, a member of the staff of the Department of State Lands does the job in between other tasks, says Pat Tate, manager of unclaimed property. With budget cuts, he says, “it’s difficult for the state government to ask for new position.”
You sit down with Marshall, and the stories just keep coming, sometimes very unusual ones right out of a crime novel.
He remembers the case of a man who was owed money from his mom’s estate. But the man’s brother had been involved in big-time crime selling C-4 plastic explosive, the kind that can be molded into any shape, and had been murdered in Oregon. The man sought by Marshall thought it best to disappear from the grid and not be connected to his brother.
Marshall doesn’t know if the murder case was solved; his concern was the unclaimed property.
“When I contacted him about his mom’s estate, he was furious,” says Marshall. “I didn’t believe his story at first, but then the documents start coming in, and his brother had been killed, found in a van up in the woods.”
Anyway, the man got $100,000 from the estate.
Then there was a woman who was owed $300,000. People open up to Marshall when he tells them such news.
“She told me she had a brain a tumor and six months to live,” he says. “I told her, get this out of the state funds, make sure the money goes where it needs to be. Otherwise, when the time comes, they’ll open up a probate.”
Because of the time involved in tracking down people, Marshall looks for those owed $10,000 or more, but if asked, he’ll do smaller amounts. He tries to look for claims in all of the state’s 39 counties.
Marshall understands the wariness of people who are told they have money coming to them.
He says you can email him at FrankM@DOR.WA.GOV.
You can also call the state’s unclaimed property division at 1-800-435-2429 or360-534-1502 and ask for him.
Marshall will never ask for your credit-card information or any payment of any kind.
Marshall figures on retiring in maybe a year and a half. All in all, it’s been a pretty good career.
He says, “I feel very lucky, blessed and fortunate to do the work I do.”