In an era inundated with scams involving mysterious princes or easy fortunes — if you just hand over a few bucks in advance — you’re probably right to be wary of anyone offering free money.
But Sherry MacLennan and Lindsey Moore really might have some cash for you, British Columbians. Maybe even millions.
The pair are part of a team of six running BC Unclaimed, recently rebranded from the BC Unclaimed Property Society.
Over the last 20 years, the organization has operated under a government mandate to reunite British Columbians with funds abandoned or forgotten in old bank accounts, with government departments or in the form of unclaimed court payments.
One of the challenges they face is skepticism that what they offer is real.
While the average payout is usually a few hundred dollars, later this month the society expects to finish the paperwork and hand over a record $1.98 million that the claimant did not previously know they owned.
“Every year we advertise, trying to get our name out there so that people know that this service does exist in British Columbia, and that our letters (are) not just some sort of phishing scam trying to get your identification,” said Moore, a co-ordinator with the society.
“We really do hold your money if you’ve got a letter from us.”
British Columbia is one of four jurisdictions in Canada that have programs to help people find unclaimed money.
In B.C., institutions like banks, credit unions, courts and government bodies are required to hand over funds if they can’t find the rightful owner after a set period of time.
It’s then up to the society’s team to try to track down the owners, with $190 million currently unclaimed in the province.
Using a series of government databases and search engines, they hunt for those who have moved without telling their financial institutions, forgot to leave a forwarding address with an old employer, or are unaware a court is holding money for them.
Last year, the society handed over $1.7 million and since its inception has returned more than $21.5 million.
“Every time I tell people what we do for work, they think, ‘Well, I wouldn’t forget about unclaimed money,’ but hundreds of thousands of people have,” Moore said.
MacLennan, the society’s executive director, said its letters informing potential beneficiaries have been met with increasing skepticism as financial scams have grown in popularity.
“We send letters so that they can review them, that they can Google us, that they can do their own research and satisfy themselves that we’re legit,” she said.
“And we always tell people there’s no urgency, the money will always be there for you. Because we know con artists will sometimes say ‘Oh, you’ve got to decide now and you got to act fast.’”
The society’s website includes an online database people can use to see if their name is linked to any money as well as links to the legislation that governs their work, all in an effort to promote their legitimacy.
“I think when people receive those letters, oftentimes they definitely think that we are a scam,” Moore said.
“I do notice some people never reply, but then maybe years later they will hear about us on the news and then they’ll make an inquiry through the website and claim their money then.”
Privacy rules prevent Moore and MacLennan from discussing details of the record-breaking $1.98 million set to be returned except to say that the account was held by the courts related to litigation.
They say large sums can be common in legal situations like foreclosures, if money is left over after debts are paid off.
“But most people, if they’ve been foreclosed on, or they’ve been sued for debt, chances are they’ve been representing themselves,” MacLennan said.
“They don’t have a lawyer telling them what to do, to go get that money. It’s emotional, they probably never want to think about the situation again.”
There is at least one more seven-figure windfall out there in B.C., a dormant account holding $1.9 million.
The vast majority of claimants do not, of course, become instant millionaires. But Moore said even a few hundred unexpected dollars can make a difference.
“I think a lot of elderly people, I would say, can be the most grateful because I think even a small dollar amount can make a big difference if you’re on the fixed income,” she said.
Legally there is no expiry date for when money can be reclaimed, but every year, the society works with actuaries to decide how much money will likely never find its rightful owner, and instead is donated.
About $55 million of that cash has been donated to the Vancouver Foundation since 2013.
“When I see the Vancouver Foundation being able to support organizations that are working with survivors of domestic violence and children who’ve been traumatized by domestic violence, and helping refugees, it really means a lot to me,” MacLennan said.
“And it’s a really good use of those unclaimed funds.”
—Ashley Joannou, The Canadian Press