Why I Got A 6-Cent Check From The State Of Idaho And How You Can Too, Maybe

Aug 8, 2016

The State of Idaho has $125 million sitting in the bank that doesn’t belong to it. It belongs to state residents. In fact, more than 800,000 people are entitled to some of it. That’s equivalent to about half the state’s population.

This reporter got a tiny fraction of that money, which raised a lot of questions for me. A while ago I got a check in the mail from the State of Idaho. I wasn’t expecting a check and for I while I had no idea what it was for. Just as surprising though was the amount: 6 cents. 

Eventually I learned that my wife had gone down a late-night internet rabbit hole that ended at yourmoney.idaho.gov where she entered our names. That site belongs to Idaho’s State Treasurer’s Office, Unclaimed Property Division.

“Property gets a little confusing because people think of land or cars or boats or something,” explains Ingrid Bolen with Idaho’s Unclaimed Property Division. “But actually it’s money, it’s just money.”

Occasionally they do get the contents of abandoned bank safety deposit boxes. Every state has an office like this. By law, companies can’t just pocket money they owe to customers or former employees even if they don’t know how to return it. So they have to give it to the state where the rightful owner lives. But Bolen says few people understand what her office is.

“And we get some interesting calls based on that,” she says. “Like, ‘my roommate moved out and I still have his microwave and couch, where can I drop it off.’”

The unclaimed property the state has comes from a lot of places. At his desk, claims agent Paul Perez says the most common are probably refunds from insurance companies and final paychecks.

“You only worked a couple of hours so you’re not that worried about it,” Perez says. “You moved. They mailed you the check to your old address, undeliverable because you had moved, and then went back to the holder, which turns it over to us.”  

Perez looks up my case in his computer. He says the money came from General Electric and was a credit balance back in 2010. So GE, one of the world’s largest corporations, owed me six cents from something I don’t remember happening years ago.

Mine is not an unusual case. Perez says penny claims are fairly common. It’s the occasional million dollar ones that make him sit up straight. He says in his ten plus years doing this he’s seen a few in that range.

It makes sense the state would need to make sure people can get significant amounts they’re owned. But is it worth the effort for the small stuff?  I asked Ingrid Bolen, if it cost more than six cents to get me my check? 

“I don’t know if you can answer that fairly,” Bolen says.  “A $6,000 check may have taken them three minutes. A six cent check may have taken them ten.”

I’m going to try to answer it anyway. Sometimes the computer processes claims automatically, which is the cheapest for the state. But if mine did come across Paul Perez’s desk and it was a really easy one to do, it might equal $1.30 in labor. Once he gives it the OK, it goes to the state controller’s office which prints and mails the check. The controller’s estimate just to do that is a $1.85.

So getting me my six cents probably cost the state at least $3. It could cost more if, for example, Perez can’t immediately verify that the person making the claim is who he or she says he or she is. A state controller’s spokesman says cutting and mailing a check could cost a lot more if they have to do things like double check that an expenditure is authorized.

Of course we usually don’t divide our work days into dollars per task. Writing this sentence is probably at least $3 of my day. Later I may watch $10 worth of cat videos online. And Bolen thinks I’m missing the point with this exercise. She sees the work of her office as a legal and moral duty.

“It’s your six cents,” Bolen says. “[The state] can’t absorb it any more than that business can absorb it.”

She adds that you don’t have to get a check if you make a claim. She says the website gives people the option of having the money sent to one of four charities. My wife says she did not see that option when she made the claim on my behalf.

The state spends about a $1 million a year connecting Idahoans to their long-lost money. The unclaimed property office has 10 employees. Some of them specialize in getting money from companies. Others, like Paul Perez, specialize in getting it to residents.

The office sends Idahoans about six-and-a-half million dollars a year. That’s often less than half what it takes in. So its pot of money keeps growing and is now at around $125 million. 

The state can’t spend any of that, but it can and does spend the interest it generates. So you could say it benefits the state when people don’t claim their money.

“Maybe you could look at it that way, but we don’t,” Bolen says. “We look at ourselves like a consumer protection agency. We’re going to, you know, be the custodians of this money until you claim it. But we really do want to give it back. I mean it makes us feel so great when we come in and over the weekend maybe 300 claims came in. We’re like, ‘yay!’”

Then there’s the economics 101 argument that putting this money into circulation might be better for the state than having it sit there, even if the interest can be spent on the public good. Though I don’t know if my now-claimed property will do much for Idaho’s economy. What do you even do with a check for six cents?

I take it to the bank. The teller, Austin, doesn’t even bat an eye as he hands me a shiny nickel and penny.

“Have you ever cashed a six cent check before?” I ask him.

“I’ve actually cashed a one cent check before,” he answers. “Which is surprising. It’s funny that they even make those. It costs more to probably make the check.”

“I’m surprised anyone would bother coming in,” I say.

“Right, I know,” Austin says. “We actually had someone this morning that had a smaller check like that. I think it was like 20 cents or something.”

Footnote: Sadly - after all that - I have since misplaced my long-lost nickel and penny.

Find Adam Cotterell on Twitter @cotterelladam

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