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I, Debt Collector

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One of the more unlikely heroes in English literature is Dickens’s rent collector Pancks, a ‘dry, uncomfortable, dreary Plodder and Grubber’, who shows a ‘sagacity that nothing could baffle, and a patience and secrecy that nothing could tire’ to determine that the Dorrits languishing in debtors’ prison are heirs to a fortune that ‘had long lain unknown of, unclaimed and accumulating’.

No such sagacity would now be required, at least in America. The New York Observer recently reported that unclaimed property offices have moved their databases online. The journalist who wrote the piece found on the Office of Unclaimed Funds website for the State of New York that he was owed thousands of dollars: he’d forgotten about shares left to him by his grandmother. Ruin averted, he booked a trip to Ibiza.

I had no such luck but, inspired by Pancks, continued searching the New York database. About a fifth of my friends who’ve lived in New York have lost track of old pay cheques, tax refunds, brokerage accounts, refunds on department store credit cards. By law these are all turned over to the state if uncollected after two to five years. Some LRB contributors were grateful to be reunited with their cash; a few thought it had to be a scam. I contacted financial and development officers at several charities that are owed money, but couldn’t get through to Planned Parenthood, which seems to have hundreds of debtors.

Universities that have been trimming departments and cutting expenses might also want to look themselves up: Columbia, Cornell and NYU are all owed. As are Cambridge University Press (one of its debtors is Oxford University Press), Farrar Straus & Giroux, Random House, the Guggenheim Museum, MoMA, the Library of Congress, Harper’s, the New Yorker, New York Review of Books, New York Times and Paris Review. May it end better for them than it did for the Dorrits.

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