Brenda Mayrack never intended to become an unclaimed-property czar. Even among legal specialties, the field is particularly obscure: During law school at the University of Wisconsin, she remembers hearing only a 10-minute lecture introducing the topic at the end of her trusts-and-estates class. But as the director of Delaware’s unclaimed-property office, Mayrack now oversees a fund of $540 million a year, forgotten by people from Paris to San Francisco and then held temporarily by the state.
“You can think of all kinds of examples,” says Mayrack. “The parent has an insurance policy, then they die, and no one knows about it.” Or, Mayrack says, someone might have lost track of a bank account, and the records disappeared in a fire or flood. “The only way the beneficiary will know about it is through unclaimed property,” she says. Because that money belongs to the consumer, not the insurance company or the bank, state offices of unclaimed property step in. Delaware’s pot of unclaimed money includes a mix of forgotten securities, uncashed checks, insurance payments, and—more and more often—gift-card money that customers never spent.
As Starbucks and Amazon propelled gift cards into what was in 2018 a $95.7 billion market, the amount of unused money left on them has also grown. Somewhere in the range of $2 billion to $4 billion—experts aren’t exactly sure—will languish on gift cards this year, according to figures provided by the business research firm Mercator Advisory Group. But there’s little consensus as to who owns that cash. While in some regions, companies take it for themselves, an increasing number of state governments seize it as unclaimed property. Much of that money is then directed into government general funds, where states use it to patch up holes in their budgets—a strange and little-noticed chain of monetary custody in which cash intended for a Colorado Office Depot can wind up paying for infrastructure hundreds of miles away.