(WATCH) Unclaimed Savings

There’s a fascinating battle between states that want to return billions of dollars in money to the rightful owners — and the Treasury Department, which, believe it or not, is fighting the effort. Congressman Ron Estes started the challenge over abandoned savings bonds when he was Kansas state treasurer.

The following is a transcript of a report from “Full Measure with Sharyl Attkisson.” Watch the video by clicking the link at the end of the page.

Savings bonds were a big financer of U.S. World War II expenses.

Bonds are a way people lend money to the federal government for a fixed period of time in exchange for interest payments at the end.

As Kansas state treasurer, Ron Estes noticed lots of matured federal savings bonds abandoned and unclaimed in safe deposit boxes.

Estes: Part of the problem maybe is that grandma and grandpa may have bought the bonds and then forgot where they put them. They passed away, and their kids or grandkids didn’t know where they were. But the U.S. Treasury had that information that a bond was bought by somebody 40 years ago and the name of the person who bought it at that point in time.

But for decades, the feds haven’t been trying to find the legal owners or heirs. When states like Kansas tried to get the information, the Treasury Department wouldn’t give it up.

Estes: But the bonds are made out to the original person who actually literally loaned the money to the U.S. Treasury, and so we couldn’t claim in their name, because we weren’t that particular individual, to actually access that.

Under Estes, Kansas sued to give the state the right to obtain the unclaimed bonds, where they’d go into an unclaimed property database. That way, residents could check and see if they had the right to money they didn’t know about under a family member’s name.

Sharyl: Have you found that the Treasury Department doesn’t seem to be working as hard as you did when you were state treasurer to identify who can take this money now?

Estes: They really aren’t. I mean, there’s not a formal process in the U.S. Treasury Department to actually try to track down people and return their money.

Estes: So we wanted to make sure that we could at least get ownership of the money, so that we can actually help track down, if not the living person, their kids or their grandkids, and return the money to them.

Sharyl: How much money does this amount to nationally?

Estes: Right now, it’s up to $27.9 billion.

The Treasury Department fought state efforts to return the money, but states won in court.

Now, Estes and a bipartisan group in Congress are trying to pass the U.S. Savings Bond Act to force the Treasury Department to actively work with all the states, looking to return unclaimed billions in savings bond money.

Estes: I remember the very first person that I returned money to, we were at the state fair. Typically we had a booth at the state fair that people could come by and check and see if we had money belonging to them. And an individual came up and noticed that his parents’ names were on the list. And so we had $14,000 worth of money that belonged to them, and so we were able to get that. It was very heartwarming to go through that process and get their money back to them. 

Sharyl: Is there any simple way for people, if they want to know if they have money coming to them that they don’t know about, to find out?

Estes: Yeah, I would encourage everybody to go to your state treasurer’s office, go to the unclaimed property division, and look up your name, look up your family members’ names, look up your parents and grandparents, or even aunts and uncles. I mean, we’re seeing a lot of that, multiple generations over the last few decades, that money’s been turned in. So I would encourage everybody to do that.

Sharyl (on-camera): As of January, there is a new Congress, and the bill to try to return bonds to the rightful owner, like all bills, has to start all over.

Watch story here.

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