I found the bank statement in my mailbox as we headed out to watch Monday night football. It was growing dark, so I couldn’t see it that well, but well enough to note that it was from Chase Bank and apparently they had wiped out my savings account. Where once there had been $17.31, there was now zero. Granted, you could argue that it was only $17.31. But it was my $17.31 and I wanted to know who took it and why.
Several years earlier, a change in my finances (like losing a job) meant I’d have to start paying monthly account fees. I’d never done much with the account anyway, and told Chase to close it. But Chase persuaded me to freeze it instead, in case I changed my mind later. And there the $17.31 sat ever since. In time, I opened a checking account and began making twice-monthly automatic deposits, and I also opened a credit card account. Any time I signed on to make a payment or check my balance, which I do at least weekly, there were my three accounts. No one ever said I needed to do anything with the savings account and truthfully, I didn’t give it any thought.
And now my $17.31 was gone.
In the morning, I dialed the toll-free number listed for reporting errors and asked why they’d emptied my account. After some head scratching, the guy on the other end informed me that since I hadn’t made any transactions for several years, the account had been closed and my money gone. And that was that.
But you hadn’t even warned me, I said. And what about the other two accounts? Surely, I couldn’t be that hard to find. To which Mr. Customer Service replied, “It’s your responsibility to monitor your account.”
There was no way I was just going to let Chase steal my money. The young teller at the local branch agreed something was wrong, but she also could find nothing on my account to suggest that anyone had tried to reach me—until, of course, they’d taken my money. She picked up the phone and called someone she thought would know something and then we waited on hold for what seemed like at least 10 minutes, but was probably more like five. After explaining the situation, she got her answer, which she scribbled word for word on a yellow Post-it. It read: “unclaimed.org. File that the funds are still belonging to you and and that you’re still living.” (Well that was certainly good to know.) As she understood it, the state had come in and taken my money and I would have to get the state to give it back. Things were starting to seem very Orwellian.
Someone else might have said, the hell with it. It was, after all, only $17.31. But $17.31 is enough to buy all kinds of things, like, say, a halfway decent bottle of wine. And it wasn’t the money, it was the principle. Curious, I searched unclaimed.org, but found nada with my name.
Finally, I called the state and reached Ali Ryan Hansen who kindly explained things. In short, banks are required to report what appear to be abandoned bank accounts, but they are also required to make a “diligent” effort to first contact the account holder when the amount is over $100 — seems I was $82.69 short of deserving that effort. When they can’t find the account holder, the funds go to the state.
“Unclaimed funds are held in trust forever in the Common School Fund for claim by rightful owners or their heirs,” Hansen said. “Investment earnings from the fund are sent twice a year to Oregon’s K-12 public school districts. Recent annual distributions have ranged from $35.2 million in 2000 to $70 million in 2017.”
Certainly, that beats letting the banks absorb the funds. But it doesn’t explain why Chase failed to make the slightest effort to contact me. I was about to close my accounts and move my money elsewhere. Then I got a call from the local branch manager with an apology and word of a deposit of $17.50 in my checking account.
In the end, I was out a few hours of time, ahead 19 cents, and left wishing I had just taken the damned $17.31 while I’d had it and indulged in a decent bottle of wine.
Lori Tobias is the author of the novel “Wander” and a journalist of many years. Follow her at loritobias.com.