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[Fraud Trends Series] Trend #2: Unclaimed Property Fraud

[Fraud Trends Series] Trend #2: Unclaimed Property Fraud

Senior Director of Strategic Alliances
LexisNexis Risk Solutions - Government

Have you ever been contacted by phone, email, text, or letter notifying you that you are entitled to unclaimed property? (It’s kind of like winning the lottery. Who wouldn’t like that?) There’s apparently so much unclaimed property out there that the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators (NAUPA), a Kentucky-based nonprofit group, launched the first Unclaimed Property Day on February 1, 2021 with the hopes of connecting nearly 33 million people in the U.S. to missing money or valuable property.

According to NAUPA, one in every 10 people has financial accounts or items of value they don’t know about. When a company cannot locate the owner of the property, it is turned over to the State. (Examples include forgotten checking or savings accounts, stocks, uncashed dividend or payroll checks, refunds, unpaid life insurance benefits, and unused rebate cards.)

In fiscal year 2020, NAUPA reported that more than $2.87 billion in unclaimed property was returned to rightful owners. (You know where we’re headed with this, don’t you?)

It created the perfect opportunity for fraudsters to create a scam to entice unsuspecting individuals with the offer of unclaimed property in exchange for a Social Security Number or the password to their PayPal account. (Folks, I hate to say it…But there are A LOT of unclaimed property scams out there.)

With the increase in identity theft issues across the country, it’s common to be a target of an unclaimed property fraud scheme, especially if elderly. Typically, a scammer will try to coax an individual into providing personal information by posing as a government official. (You might be promised a car, land, or house, but they are just trying to take advantage of you.)

For example, the West Virginia State Treasurer issued a warning to residents regarding a scam call from a state official who falsely claims to represent the state’s Unclaimed Property Division. The caller states that the individual has funds available in their name, but to obtain them, they must purchase a reloadable pre-paid debit card and mail it to a particular address in order to have the funds added to it. (Shouldn’t they be sending you the property, not you paying to get it?)

Sometimes, scammers will send out a text message asking you to click on a link to recover unclaimed property. Actually, what they’re doing is phishing for personal information. (Note that government representatives will never ask for any personal information until after the individual has filed an official claim. And they will never reach out by text message.)

Marilyn Cook (aka Marilyn Powell and Marilyn Sunset), 58, of Alcoa, Tenn., concocted a scheme to obtain unclaimed property held by the California State Controller’s Office Unclaimed Property Division. She identified properties that belonged to others and falsely certified that she was entitled to collect said properties. She used a Tennessee ID card that was obtained in the name of Marilyn Sunset to have some of the claim forms notarized. She also submitted fictitious documents in support of her claims, even using Department of Justice letterhead signed by a former Assistant Attorney General. (My, that was very bold.) In all, she falsely claimed 128 properties totaling nearly $400,000. Fortunately, the Unclaimed Property Division stopped this fraudster in her tracks and did not disperse any property to Cook.

Joshua Webb, of Louisiana, was arrested for submitting more than 100 false claims worth $138,000 to Florida’s unclaimed property system. Instead of stealing someone’s identity, he just targeted the unclaimed property of people throughout Florida who shared his name. (What a simple stroke of genius.) Webb submitted his claims electronically and through the mail. Apparently, Webb submitted the multiple falsified claims using the same Louisiana mailing address, and the IP address he used to submit the online claims is believed to belong to his mother. (The opposite of a stroke of genius.)

Unclaimed property fraud not only reduces public trust in state agencies that handle unclaimed property, but it also makes it more difficult for them to do their jobs. The best way to avoid becoming a victim of unclaimed property fraud is to check your state’s list of abandoned property to determine if you are eligible. You can find the official unclaimed property program in each state by visiting NAUPA’s national website.

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