Unclaimed fortunes await us

Nury Vittachi

Hong Kong’s humorist on the importance of claiming what is rightfully yours

Take a big chunk of your savings out of the bank. Put the cash on a random surface in your house. Leave for several years, during which evolution will cause paper, old keys and junk mail to evolve on all flat surfaces. Forget it’s there and move to a different city. 

That happens everywhere, involving huge sums in cash, forgotten accounts, and unclaimed payouts. There may be as much as US$80 billion of “forgotten” money in the United States alone, a recent study in The New York Times revealed. (And that’s probably just in a jar inside Warren Buffet’s fridge.)

Reporters asked Hong Kong’s finance chiefs earlier this year whether they would raise welfare payouts for people in the city. Civil servants replied that people in the city already failed to collect payments to which they were already entitled.

In Hong Kong this year, the government set aside more than HK$160 billion for businesses affected by COVID-19 – but some groups such as CLP and the Hong Kong Jockey Club have not collected their share, and the same is true of entire industries, including banks and airlines.

Unclaimed cash is an intriguing niche for accountants. For example, one named Paul Thompson has made a specialty of finding unclaimed cash for the beer industry, a personal interest of his (yes, he is based in the United Kingdom, how did you guess?). “The government’s research and development tax credits scheme is available to any business investing money in innovation, but there is a misconception that it is only available in scientific applications,” he told the Express & Star, a regional newspaper in the United Kingdom. “Breweries don’t realize that the development of new flavours of beer could make them eligible to apply for tax credits with an average claim being around £10,000 (about HK$95,000).”

Not a bad payout for adding a drop of vanilla essence to your brew, taking a sip and grimacing.

Meanwhile, the Hong Kong government has a huge stock of unclaimed goods that have been confiscated for one reason or another. For years, they have quietly got rid of them through regular auctions, but because of the pandemic, these have been cancelled. So the goods are piled high in storage units and lists are published on the Internet.

Your correspondent took a look, and sadly reports that they are not exciting enough to change out of your pajamas for. Example of a typical list: “1) Old fridge. 2) Old air-conditioner. 3) Flower pot. 4) Floor standing fan (may not work). 5) Four-faced Buddha. 6) Kodak film camera.”

But occasionally the list does conjure up intriguing images of where that particular collection may have come from. One current list features: “1) Dulcimer. 2) Violin. 3) Guitar.  4) Lute.” Who owned these? A time traveller who had recently visited Shakespearean England?

Other lists are decidedly unattractive: “1) Trinkets (Assorted Colours). 2) Clothing (Used).” A trinket is defined as “a small trivial thing which has no real value except perhaps ornamental,” which is a perfect description of many young people of my acquaintance.

In Wuhan, a businessman who runs a delivery company reported that his warehouse was filled with unclaimed packages dating back to the strict lockdown in January. He is offering a free bowl of Wuhan’s traditional hot, dry noodles to anyone who comes to collect their packages.

Researching this subject is oddly cheering. Publications are full of gloomy reports about the economic downtown, but fail to mention that our entire society is awash in large amounts of unclaimed money and goods.

Anyway, if companies in Hong Kong really don’t need the money to which they are entitled, they could always claim the stuff and forward it to the needy, such as magazine writers, to pluck a totally random example from the air.

While awaiting such news, this reporter is heading to the local bar to start a research and development unit. Cheers.

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