When it comes to privacy, not all states are alike. This was confirmed yet again in the 50 State Compendium of Unclaimed Property Practices we compiled. The compendium ranks the amount of personal data that state treasuries expose during the process by which individuals can collect unclaimed funds. The data exposed can provide fraudsters with a crime exacta: claiming money that no one will ever miss and gathering various nuggets of personal data that can help facilitate other types of identity theft. The takeaway: Some states provide way too much data to anyone who is in the business of exploiting consumer information.
For those who take their privacy seriously, the baseline of our compendium—inclusion in a list of people with unclaimed funds or property—may in itself be unacceptable. For others, finding their name on an unclaimed property list isn’t a huge deal. In fact, two people on our team found unclaimed property in the New York database (I was one of them) while putting together the 50-state compendium, and there were no panic attacks.
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That said, there is a reason to feel uncomfortable—or even outright concerned—to find your name on a list of people with unclaimed property. After all, you didn’t give anyone permission to put it there. The way a person manages her affairs (or doesn’t) should not be searchable on a public database like a scarlet letter just waiting to be publicized.
Then there’s the more practical reason that it matters. Identity thieves rely on sloppiness. Scams thrive where there is a lack of vigilance (lamentably, a lifestyle choice for many Americans despite the rise of identity-related crimes). The crux of the problem when it comes to reporting unclaimed property: It’s impossible to be guarded and careful about something you don’t even know exists, and, of course, it’s much easier to steal something if you know that it does.
The worst of the state unclaimed property databases provide a target-rich environment for thieves interested in grabbing the more than $58 billion in unclaimed funds held by agencies at the state level across the country.
States’ response to questions about public database
When we asked for comment from the eight states that received the worst rating in our compendium—California, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas and Wisconsin—five replied. In an effort to continue the dialogue around this all-too-important topic, here are a few of the responses from the states:
— California said: “The California state controller has a fraud detection unit that takes proactive measures to ensure property is returned to the rightful owners. We have no evidence that the limited online information leads to fraud.”
The “limited online information” available to the public on the California database provides name, street addresses, the company that held the unclaimed funds and the exact amount owed unless the property is something with a movable valuation like equity or commodities. To give just one example, we found a $50 credit at Tiffany associated with a very public figure. We were able to verify it because the address listed in the California database had been referenced in a New York Times article about the person of interest. Just those data points could be used by a scammer to trick Tiffany or the owner of the unclaimed property (or the owner’s representatives) into handing over more information (to be used elsewhere in the commission of fraud) or money (a finder’s fee is a common ruse) or both.
This policy seems somewhat at odds with California’s well-earned reputation as one of the most consumer-friendly states in the nation when it comes to data privacy and security.
— Hawaii’s response: “We carefully evaluated the amount and type of information to be provided and consulted with our legal counsel to ensure that no sensitive personal information was being provided.”
My response: Define “sensitive.” These days, name, address and email address (reflect upon the millions of these that are “out there” in the wake of the Target and Home Depot breaches) are all scammers need to start exploiting your identity. The more information they have, the more opportunities they can create, leveraging that information, to get more until they have enough to access your available credit or financial accounts.
— Indiana’s response was thoughtful. “By providing the public record, initially we are hoping to eliminate the use of a finder, which can charge up to 10% of the property amount. Providing the claimant the information up front, they are more likely to use our service for free. That being said, we are highly aware of the fraud issue and, as you may know, Indiana is the only state in which the Unclaimed Property Division falls under the Attorney General’s office. This works to our advantage in that we have an entire investigative division in-house and specific to unclaimed property. In addition, we also have a proactive team that works to reach out to rightful owners directly on higher-dollar claims to reduce fraud and to ensure those large dollar amounts are reaching the rightful owners.”
Protect and serve should be the goal
While Indiana has the right idea, the state still provides too much information. The concept here is to protect and serve—something the current system of unclaimed property databases currently does not do.
The methodology used in the compendium was quite simple: The less information a state provided, the better its ranking. Four stars was the best rating—it went to states that provided only a name and city or ZIP code—and one star was the worst, awarded to states that disclosed name, street address, property type, property holder and exact amount owed.
In the majority of states in the U.S., the current approach to unclaimed funds doesn’t appear to be calibrated to protect consumers during this ever-growing epidemic of identity theft and cyber fraud. The hit parade of data breaches over the past few years—Target, Home Depot, Sony Pictures, Anthem and, most recently, the Office of Personnel Management—provides a case-by-case view of the evolution of cybercrime. Whether access was achieved by malware embedded in a spear-phishing email or came by way of an intentionally infected vendor, the ingenuity of fraudsters continues apace, and it doesn’t apply solely to mega databases. Identity thieves make a living looking for exploitable mistakes. The 50 State Compendium provides a state-by-state look at mistakes just waiting to be converted by fraudsters into crimes.
The best way to keep your name off those lists: Stay on top of your finances, cash your checks and keep tabs on your assets. (And check your credit reports regularly to spot signs of identity fraud. You can get your free credit reports every year from the major credit reporting agencies, and you can get a free credit report summary from Credit.com every month for a more frequent overview.) In the meantime, states need to re-evaluate the best practices for getting unclaimed funds to consumers. One possibility may be to create a search process that can only be initiated by the consumer submitting his name and city (or cities) on a secure government website.