LOS ANGELES – Danny DeVito (search) has a $26 check waiting for him from Allstate Insurance. Reese Witherspoon is owed nearly $100 by Tiffany Co. And California first lady Maria Shriver (search) has more than $300 waiting for her in the state's unclaimed property vault, according to the state controller's Web site.
State Controller Steve Westly kicked off a campaign Wednesday to find the owners of $4.8 billion worth of items in the vault including checks, jewelry and antique gold coins.
Once a year, the controller's office puts out ads listing owners of uncollected assets. Westly is making the process easier by creating a new Web link where people can quickly determine if the goods belong to them.
Among the more impressive of the unclaimed items is an 88-carat natural Blue Star sapphire ring worth $25,000.
But before anyone thinks they might have a new bauble, Westly cautioned that most of the gems were turned over by banks from safe deposit boxes. Those claiming them must be listed as the owner or next of kin.
"There's a real uptick," Westly said of the number of the unclaimed items. "It happens more often then you'd believe. Someone passes away. Someone moves and doesn't change the address."
Last year the state opened 503,000 new unclaimed accounts, bringing the total number to about 7.6 million, said Garin Casaleggio, a spokesman for the controller's office.
Westly, a Democrat likely to challenge Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger next year for office, handed out reclaimed checks to a group of Los Angeles residents at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles.
Carlos Orellana, 32, of Los Angeles received one for $2,688. The janitorial supply manufacturer had tucked away money in a bank account for years, but when he finally contacted the bank, he found the money had been turned over to the state.
"I just thought the money was gone" he said. "They told me I could get it back, but it was very complicated."
Orellana, a native of El Salvador, said he planned to use part of the money to buy his 4-year-old daughter Litzy the "Dora the Explorer" bicycle she wanted.
Westly also said his office was working on a version of the Web site in Spanish.
Banks, insurance companies and other institutions must forward unclaimed property to the state when an owner cannot be found. State officials check recent tax records for a more current address. If they find one, they notify people by mail.
But they can't do much beyond that, and the state holds the assets in perpetuity, earning interest on the money each year.
Laurence Martin, a former adjunct business professor at California State University, came to collect a check for more than $14,000 from unclaimed retirement funds, but didn't get to go home with the money because his check was accidentally switched with another recipient.
"It's good to know the money hadn't disappeared," he said.