Meet Michael Devney—A Central Square Resident With an Unusual Hobby

michael devneyPhoto by Jess Benjamin.

michael devney

People of a certain age might remember a TV show called The Millionaire, in which the mysterious John Beresford Tipton would send out his aide Michael Anthony to give a million dollars—no strings attached—to a random person.

One of the the show’s regular viewers was Michael Devney, who watched it as a child and eventually used it as the inspiration for an unusual hobby. Today, Devney finds money for people and organizations, and doesn’t ask for anything in return. Over the last 10 years, he estimates that he done this more than 1,000 times.

It’s no secret how to do it. In fact, he’s happy to share what he does, so you can do it, too.

“You have a name, and then you go to unclaimed.org,” he explains from his apartment near Central Square. This is the website for the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators, or NAUPA, and it provides access to the registries of unclaimed property in all 50 states and several foreign countries.

For Devney, who spent 32 years at Harvard in the Alumni Affairs and Development Office, researching people online has become second nature. He’s found money for charitable organizations, friends, family members and total strangers. He’ll look up where they’re located, where they’ve worked and other related information, then go to the NAUPA site and dive into the listings.

Many states won’t reveal the amounts—Massachusetts will only say if the figure is over or under $100—but if there’s a forgotten bank account, a payment that went astray in the mail, a security deposit that was never returned or one of countless ways money gets mislaid, he’ll find it. If the money remains unclaimed after a period of time it’s turned over to the state, and then just sits, until it’s claimed by the person or organization or someone is able to prove they are the heir or successor to it.

Devney became interested in what he calls “random acts of kindness” when he learned that these offices have no one to seek out the owners of the funds, but instead passively list them and wait to be contacted. There are professional finders who want a percentage of the recovered funds, but Devney asks for nothing. And what he gets in return ranges from thank you hugs to outright skepticism.

“People are always a little suspicious,” he says. He recalls how actress Chase Masterson, who appeared on the television series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, was at first concerned Devney might be a stalker. She was relieved when he showed her that he had brought envelopes with information about missing funds for all the actors at that particular fan event. Entertainers—and anyone who regularly transitions from job to job—may have payments fall through the cracks through no fault of their own.

When Devney handed Masterson the information on how she could recover $8,000 and explained he wanted nothing in return, she wrapped him up in a hug. And after recovering from his surprise that Devney found him money in California, another Star Trek actor, Rene Auberjonois, responded with a quip: “Why didn’t you check the other states?”

How he decides to research someone reveals a lot about his own interests, which include theater, television and music. “All of these people entertained me,” he says. This is his way of thanking them. In one case, he found unclaimed money belonging to Harry Chapin Music, the publishing company of the late musician who famously sang “Cat’s in the Cradle” and “Taxi.” Devney notified the Harry Chapin Foundation of the account.

Devney knows people think his hobby is odd, and he sometimes has to go to intermediaries who will vouch for his legitimacy—and his sanity. When he discovered that the Japanese Cemetery Society of Honolulu had $114,000 in abandoned accounts, he took a somewhat circuitous route to get the information to them. His friend has a brother who’s a former congressman from Honolulu. He had the friend explain to her brother what he does so that Devney could then send the information to him. The former congressman, in turn, contacted the society.

In another instance, he found $89,000 for a defunct puppet theater in Australia. In that case, he called a friend in New Hampshire who is a professional puppeteer with contacts in Australia. The information eventually made its way to a museum there that was housing the puppets. He’ll cast his net wide when finding information about a person. When he met Sean Astin—who you know as Samwise Gamgee in Lord of the Rings—at a fan event, Devney presented him with an envelope with information not only about money due to him, but also amounts that belonged to his parents Patty Duke and John Astin.

Before Devney goes to the theater, he’ll research the cast, including spouses and charitable organizations they’re involved with, and leave envelopes with the stage manager. While he likes to do it in person, he’ll also rely on the mail, such as when he was researching the von Trapp family and found several abandoned accounts. Not knowing where the individuals might be, he sent the information to the family business, the Von Trapp Lodge, in Stowe, Vermont.

States don’t charge to search their online listings, and Devney encourages people to look up their own names and those of family members every year or two. He also suggests people search for organizations and clubs they belong to. One time, in discovering an actor had an interest in California charities dealing with Down syndrome, he found some $42,000 that belonged to the Down Syndrome Association of Oakland, which no longer was in operation. He notified sister groups in Los Angeles and San Francisco to make them aware of it.

So if you meet Michael Devney and he tells you he’s found you some money, there’s no cause for alarm and no catch—it’s not a scam. “Random acts of kindness are suspect,” he admits, but that’s not stopping him. He’s plans to continue tracking down funds for everyone from celebrities to his late father.

Ironically, Devney has never found any money for himself.

Daniel M. Kimmel is a movie critic and the author of seven books. His most recent is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel.

This story originally appeared as “Finders, Givers” in the March/April issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 250 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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