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One day, $318,000. The improbable search for the Tampa owner of a credit union account

The state was about to take custody of the money.

Anthony Padron knew it was a long shot.

The GTE Financial employee had handled hundreds of dormant credit union accounts, the ones clients forget or never know they inherited. Some accounts remain inactive for so long that the money ends up in state hands.

Padron’s job was to ensure that didn’t happen. He’d call or send letters informing people that they needed to contact GTE Financial or make a small deposit to keep the accounts active. He had reunited clients with as little as a few dollars to up to a few thousand. Many would thank him. Either way, he’d feel good about a job well done.

GTE Financial employee Anthony Padron. [ Graham Brink ]

This one was different. Padron could tell from the file that the credit union had sent letters and tried to track down potential beneficiaries over the preceding weeks. Phone calls went unanswered. Dead ends followed more dead ends. Another thing stood out:

The account contained $318,000.

Padron had less than a day to find the rightful owner. GTE Financial was legally bound to send the money to the state the next morning. More research turned up a local business address potentially related to the account holder. Padron told his boss he’d make the 15-minute drive to knock on the door, something he had never done in three years of tracking down owners of dormant accounts. Neither of them thought that would pay off.

Padron put the chances at close to zero.

Related: The state has $2 billion in unclaimed property. Is some of it yours?

• • •

Every year, hundreds of millions of dollars in unclaimed property end up with the state’s Chief Financial Officer. Much of it from accounts at banks, credit unions, insurance companies, utilities and other financial institutions that have been inactive for years.

In some cases, the account holders die or move away, making it hard to track them down. Others simply forget they opened an account, or don’t realize they need to do something — make a deposit, withdraw money — every few years to keep it active.

Florida employs investigators to find the owners of forgotten accounts and property. They are good at it, returning more money per capita than most other states, said Mark Bracken, president of the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators.

Still, Florida has more than $2 billion in unclaimed property, about $410 million in the greater Tampa Bay area, the state reported last year.

Padron, now 36, didn’t want to take any chances on that day in April. He grew up in Tampa and graduated from Leto High School. He had worked in the medical sector before joining GTE in 2016. He knew $318,000 would make a difference to most Tampa Bay area families. If it were his account, he would want someone to fight hard to find him

Even if the state eventually located the rightful owner, it would take more time. He wondered whether the family needed the money now — to pay medical bills, help send someone to college or to buy a car to get to a better job.

Tania Pratt, vice president of member care and experience at GTE Financial in Tampa. [ GTE Financial ]

Padron’s boss, Tania Pratt, had similar concerns. GTE Financial’s accounting department had given Pratt a heads-up about the $318,000, by far the largest inactive account she had heard of in nearly 27 years at the credit union. She knew her colleagues had already performed all the required steps to find the account holder. The account belonged to a Tampa woman, a longtime member of GTE Financial. Pratt, vice president of member care and experience, wondered what happened for the woman to lose track of such a large amount.

With the deadline looming, Pratt began the morning using database software to trace anyone connected with addresses linked to the woman. She found a cell phone number. She called. No answer. She called again. No answer. At least, she thought, the calls went to voicemail, a sign that the number was active. After every meeting that day, she dialed the number again.

As morning turned to afternoon, Padron came into Pratt’s office. Neither was ready to give up. The two chatted about the business address.

“We’ve got to do everything we can,” Pratt said to Padron.

Padron knew it wouldn’t take long to get to the business from the GTE building near Ybor City. He figured the blue GTE shirt he had on would keep anyone he ran into from thinking he was a scam artist — or crazy. He had a feeling no one would be there, or whoever was there wouldn’t know the family he was looking for. He went more out of obligation than expectation. Check the box and move on to the next clue, he said.

When Padron arrived at about 3 p.m., he found the address led to a house, not a business. He pulled his Toyota Corolla into the driveway and noticed three kids in school uniforms playing outside. A truck was parked nearby. It looked like the family had just arrived home.

“Is your mom or dad around?” Padron asked the kids.

A man appeared at the door, with his cell phone in hand. Pratt was on the other end of the line. She had dialed the number for what felt like the 10th time. The man finally answered, thinking anyone who called that often must have something important to say.

“You all don’t mess around,” he said to Padron.

We did it, Padron thought to himself. We found him. This is really happening.

Padron explained the situation, the dormant account, the $318,000, the ticking clock. The man said the account was his mother’s. She was ill and incapacitated. She no longer lived at the address where the credit union sent the letters. The man, whose father had died, had no idea his mother had a GTE Financial account. He took the windfall news calmly, almost like he was still processing if it was real, Padron said.

Padron asked the man to visit the credit union the next day to sort out how his family could take control of the account. (The family of the account holder did not want to participate in this story.)

“We also need to make a deposit,” Padron told him. “I can do it for you, but it has to be today.”

One of the kids retrieved four quarters from the truck console and handed them to Padron.

Padron called Pratt from his car.

“I’m coming back with the money,” he said to her.

He remembers a happy, high-pitched scream.

Related: Tips on how Floridians can keep track of their financial accounts.

• • •

Back at GTE headquarters, Pratt wanted to do a cartwheel out her office door. The buzz about finding the $318,000 man quickly spread. Employees on Padron and Pratt’s floor exchanged high-fives.

“I really didn’t think we would find him, which made it feel that much better,” she said. “It’s a life-changing amount. We just weren’t willing to give up.”

Padron took the dollar to the credit union tellers. Depositing four quarters was all it took to save the $318,000 account. Everyone was smiling.

The longest of long shots had paid off.

Related: The top 20 largest unclaimed property accounts held by the state.

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