As of 2017, there was roughly $9 billion in unclaimed property in California. If you’re unfamiliar with the government’s definition of “unclaimed property,” basically, whenever someone is owed money and can’t be located — perhaps because of a change of address or an expired gift card — ownership of their property is transferred to the state until they can be found. All of those lost Best Buy gift cards add up.
To help distribute this property back to its rightful owners, the state of California has a searchable online database for all unclaimed property throughout the land. Type in your name, click around on an image-based captcha to help train self-driving cars and/or murder drones, and it’ll spit out a list of everything you’re owed.
Free money is great enough (just ask Mathew Lesko ), but another cool thing about the database is that the records are free and public. You can search as many names as you want. And, because most celebrities live in California, this means the database is populated with a large number of famous names. Celebs — they forget about gift cards, just like us!
After a few quick searches, I learned that Keanu Reeves is owed $85.00 by Pacific Bell, $0.01 by DBA Entertainment Partners, and an undisclosed amount in unredeemed Google gift certificates. (By the way, don’t get too excited when you see their addresses listed; celebrities are not just like us in that they usually list the address of their management or production companies when filling out forms, and even if by chance you accidentally discover some random celeb’s address through the database, please don’t be a weirdo and go to their house.) David Harbour, the gruff cop on Stranger Things, is owed $149.81 by Farmer’s Insurance Exchange. Spencer Pratt is owed $9 by his alma mater, the University of Southern California.
Musicians also think that not claiming small sums of unpaid money… rocks. Blink-182’s Mark Hoppus is owed over $100 from an unclaimed refund from Guitar Center, and Fred Durst is owed $16.19 by the Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center, presumably because of overpaid medical bills following a nookie-related injury.
Try it yourself. Just remember to search for their legal names. The Rza, for example, is actually Robert Diggs (although helpfully, the address fields for his unclaimed property show “AKA THE RZA”). Spell a name wrong, and you still might find results: “Jon Voigt” (aka Jon Voight), for example, is owed $24.11 by the United Services Automobile Association for a premium refund, perhaps from an old Chrysler LeBaron he sold a while back?
That so many celebrities haven’t claimed their property is perhaps not totally surprising, considering they’re, you know, celebrities. It would be a waste of time to track down such meager amounts. For the sake of comparison, if you dropped a penny on the subway while late for work, would you (non-celebrity, worthless, bad skin) bother to pick it up?
Something odd I noticed when wasting an entire day looking up random celebrities was that a single company, called Screenlife, LLC, came up repeatedly. It seemingly owes every celebrity some amount of money. This includes Keanu Reeves ($61.76), Winona Ryder ($11.76), and even the correct spelling of Jon Voight ($0.12). What is this mysterious business, and why does it owe so many celebs money?
According to a quick internet search, Screenlife was a Seattle-based company that developed a series of 2000s-era board games called Scene It?. In it, players take turns moving around a board, then answer trivia questions based on movie/television clips from the included DVD. There were a number of special editions, focusing on movies, sports, and specific bits of pop culture like Harry Potter and Seinfeld. They were relatively successful, and in 2008, the company was acquired by Paramount Pictures. But then, as the popularity of both board games and DVDs waned, the company shuttered four years later, and all 40 employees were laid off. Now, you can usually find a moldering box at a local thrift-store, frequently missing the DVDs.
Presumably, the money owed to celebs by Screenlife is unpaid residuals from those DVDs. To confirm this, I searched celebrities who starred in films/shows featured in the games, to see if any were owed money by Screenlife. I had no luck with the ‘80s edition of Scene It?, though I did learn that Kirk Cameron is owed $0.01 from Guitar Center. I had better luck with Scene It? Deluxe Movie 2nd Edition, which features the 2006 film The Devil Wears Prada. Most of the actors in it aren’t owed property, excepting Adrian Grenier, who is owed $0.86.
Defying logic, Screenlife even owes itself money.
To find out how deep the conspiracy goes, I downloaded the giant .csv file that lists every single piece of unclaimed property in the state. The file is kindly made available by the California state government, assuming you can open it. It’s a staggering 13.25 gigabytes large and crashed all of my spreadsheet programs when I initially tried to access it, which meant that I had to use rudimentary terminal commands to get the goods. As a nerdy novelty T-shirt sold from a mail order catalog in the mid-’90s might say, The World According to Grep.
It appears that Screenlife owes approximately 231 celebrities money, including Drew Carey, Will Arnett, Donal Logue, David Cross, Seth MacFarlane, and Kurt Cobain. The amounts vary. More than half are below $100, although a couple — including Steve Zahn and John Malkovich — are owed thousands. It looks like most were entered into the system in March 2012, not long after it was announced that Screenlife was shutting down. Defying logic, Screenlife even owes itself money.
Although the amounts are usually small, the total owed to all celebrities adds up to a not-insignificant $97,781.85. Though the celebrities probably don’t need the money (especially the dead ones) I imagine if this total was claimed and then donated to a small non-profit, they’d probably get a few easy puff pieces out of it. I reached out to a few of the celebrities who were owed money — including John Malkovich, Seth MacFarlane, and Keanu Reeves — but astoundingly, did not receive a single response.
So, banal mystery solved. Remember to spend your stray gift cards, I guess.