New law makes bad 'finders' weepers

Posted: August 11, 2014

JAMES JONES was nervous last November when I asked him to comment on allegations by the Pennsylvania Treasury Department that he'd pocketed tens of thousands of dollars in unclaimed money that didn't belong to him.

"This isn't going into the paper, is it?" Jones asked when, after months of trying, I finally tracked him down. "Is this a big deal?"

Seeing how it was going on the cover of the Daily News, yeah, it was a big deal.

I called Jones again last week, to see if he wanted to comment on brand-new regulations that aim to keep people from doing what Treasury investigators alleged Jones had done. But his phone wasn't accepting messages.

So I wasn't able to tell him that the regulations, while not the subject of a cover story, are still a big deal. Because they could put him out of business.

Let's start at the beginning.

Jones is a "finder" who helps people recover money owed to them by the Philly Sheriff's Office. When the office sells a property to satisfy city tax liens, the owner is entitled to whatever money remains after the liens are paid.

Since many of the homes have long been abandoned, their owners - or their heirs - don't always know that the properties have been sold.

The Sheriff's Office has five years to locate the proper claimants. After that, the unclaimed money is forwarded to the Pennsylvania Treasury's Bureau of Unclaimed Property, which keeps a public list of those who are owed.

Finders like Jones use the list to track down owners or heirs and, for a fee, handle paperwork to submit a claim. Although state law caps the fees at 15 percent, no laws required finders to register with the state or adhere to standard practices.

"We don't even know how many finders are out there," Treasury's chief counsel, Christopher Craig, told me last year.

But Jones has been on their radar since 2012, when Treasury investigators began noticing irregularities with claims associated with him. A subsequent investigation led Treasury to allege that Jones - through fraud, forgery, improper fees or outright theft - stole tens of thousands of dollars from clients or from estates of those who'd never sought his help in the first place.

Treasury referred its findings to the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office. D.A. spokeswoman Tasha Jamerson says the office can't comment on any case unless charges have been filed.

What has long been needed, said Craig, is a law that requires finders to register with the state, mandates proper practices and outlines disciplinary procedures. Most importantly, it would also give subpoena power to the Bureau of Unclaimed Property, allowing it to collect evidence and compel testimony.

And that, Treasury announced last week, is finally what we will have. Thanks to a push from state Treasurer Rob McCord, changes were made to the state's Fiscal Code that will give Treasury oversight of the finders.

Starting Jan. 6, all finders must register with Treasury via a notarized application, which will be vetted by the department. The registration will attest, under penalty of perjury, that the finder has not been convicted in the past 10 years of certain criminal offenses nor is currently under investigation for them.

Treasury will have the power to conduct investigations and issue subpoenas regarding a finder and may also, under certain conditions, revoke, suspend or refuse to issue a registration certificate.

Finally, any finder who violates the provisions of the new registry will be slapped with a third-degree misdemeanor and fined up to $1,000. Subsequent offenses will cost $5,000 a pop.

That oughta rein in the cowboys.

"The vast majority of finders operate within the law, and they can provide valuable service to some people who may either not know they have unclaimed property or need help to retrieve it," McCord said in a statement last week.

The law pleases Stanley Nicotera of South Philly, who told Treasury investigators that Jones twice charged him a 35 percent fee to recover money owed on two properties.

"It sounds like it'll help people be treated fairly," Nicotera says. A finder would "know he has a lot to lose if he doesn't do the right and legal thing."

And the law will help honest finders like Joe O'Hara, who says the unscrupulous ones give his profession a bad name.

"The process of obtaining unclaimed funds can be really stressful on families," says O'Hara, whose company is called Asset Recovery PA. "This will help them be more secure, because they'll know the finders have been vetted. It gets rid of the bad apples."

Sounds like a big deal.


Email: polaner@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-2217

On Twitter: @RonniePhilly

Blog: ph.ly/RonnieBlog

Columns: ph.ly/Ronnie

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