Returning lost, unclaimed money to thousands is mission impossible when you have a foreign accent

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Rehema Barry never thought her Kenyan accent would be a barrier to her job of returning large sums of lost and unclaimed money to thousands of Australians.

But over the past 12 months the Rockhampton woman has found herself dealing with a world where phone scamming is rampant and suspicion among the general population is rife.

She has made about 3,000 phone calls to people or businesses she had identified as being owed lost money. The uptake so far? Zero.

“People are really scared,” she said.

“They don’t take me on. They don’t think I’m legitimate.”

Mrs Barry laughed off her many unsuccessful phone attempts to convince people her calls were genuine.

“My accent hasn’t really helped,” she said.

“People say, ‘How do I know you’re not from overseas?’

“I sound foreign. I didn’t think I did.”

Mrs Barry immigrated to Australia from Kenya in 2001.

The business of unclaimed money

She decided to move into the unclaimed monies business in June 2020 during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when she found herself housebound.

“I was hoping to find something I could do from home,” she said.

“My research made me aware of the unclaimed money agencies.

“Sometimes people lose money when they change address or they have a bank account that’s gone dormant, or they have shares they haven’t followed through to claim, or life insurance policies that haven’t been claimed.”

Under Commonwealth law, if money sits unclaimed for seven years, it’s transferred to the Commonwealth of Australia Consolidated Revenue Fund.

Where lost money goes

There is around $1.5 billion in lost shares, bank accounts and life insurance and it can be claimed at any time by the rightful owner — but people need to know it’s there in the first place.

Unclaimed money from deceased estates is also held by the Public Trustee of Queensland.

“This is where I go in,” Mrs Barry said.

“I go to the registry and I look at the amount that’s sitting there — I try and find the owner,” she said.

“Sometimes it’s to inform them, as they didn’t know. Sometimes they are aware, but they don’t know how to claim it.

“That’s when I assist them with the process of getting the right documentation together to claim it.”

Mrs Barry runs a refund consulting business which charges a fee to help people reclaim their lost money.

But people can also search themselves for free.

Mrs Barry said the largest amount of money she had tried to return was $20,000, to no avail.

If her luck doesn’t improve soon, she conceded she might have to throw in the towel.

Scammers make business hard going

She said one of her biggest obstacles was the damage being done by scammers using the phone to try to rip people off.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s (ACCC) Targeting Scams report for 2020 released this week found there had been 103,153 incidents of phone scams amounting to $48.2 million in losses.

The report stated that Australians lost more than $851 million to scams in 2020 — a record amount — as scammers seized on the pandemic to con unsuspecting people.

“Last year, scam victims reported the biggest losses we have seen, but worse, we expect the real losses will be even higher, as many people don’t report these scams,” ACCC deputy chair Delia Rickard said.

“Unfortunately, scammers continue to become more sophisticated and last year used the COVID-19 pandemic to scam and take advantage of people from all walks of life during this crisis.”

Mrs Barry, who comes from a background of community services in aged and mental health care, said it was disappointing that her legitimate  attempts to benefit people were being undermined by the activity of scammers.

By Frazer Pearce (Original ABC Article)