Found Money – Am I a thief?

I’m a big believer in giving lost money a home (in my own pocket). I remember vividly as a ~9 year old going to the dime store down the street from my grandmother’s house. One day I noticed that there was a large cache of pennies in a storm drain. I looked around, found a stick and an old piece of chewing gum, and spend the next 20 minutes unabashedly pulling out change (yes, I guess I’ve always been this way). I of course spent none of it and took it back to grandma’s richer than when I left. I almost always pick up change these days though sometimes I’m reluctant to do it around clients (esp. new clients). I have been known to go back for it later though 🙂

A friend once made the argument to me that the money was not mine so I should just leave it there. He and I both are very strong adovcates for private property rights. He intimated that the owner may come back for it. Now with the random penny in the grocery store parking lot this may seem a little far-fetched, but it is possible I suppose. I noted that I had a greater reluctance to pick up change on private property than on public property because even though a grocery store parking lot is a fairly public place it is owned or leased by the grocery store and thus the money technically belongs to them I would think (if the true coin-dropper is unable to be located). Should I be turning this money in? I think that would be weird. “Um hi, yeah, I was um in the parking lot and I found this penny that’s been run over like 50 times and um it must be yours, right?” I can see them pressing the secret button to alert security now.

Perhaps I should impose a waiting period based on valuation such as 1 second per cent so that I would just wait a second if I found a penny but would wait 8 minutes and 20 seconds if I found a $5 bill? If noone showed to claim it then I could keep it. What if it’s an office setting meaning the likelihood of finding the rightful owner could be much higher? What’s the ratio of # of employees to value of found money that needs to be in place before I should start asking around?

For now I’ve settled on giving the money a home in my son’s 529 plan. I just consider it random donations from the public at large to someone whose work may benefit said public sometime in the future (but I still write it off the contribution on my state taxes 🙂

Any thoughts (besides me spending way too much time thinking about this)?

Cross posted here

Posted in Ethics
  • Ganderthoughts

    I think this can be modeled via a quadratic curve with two peaks and progressively increasing baselines. Think of it as a line on a graph with the x axis = Amount of money found and the y axis = a scale indicating whether you should return the money, the higher the value, you better return it.

    So the line begins close to the 0 vertex, if you find one dollar, keep it.
    10? Keep it.
    100? Keep it but think about it. 1,000? You better return it or some guy with pockets full of white bags will come looking for it.
    10,000? Freaking keep it but go on a trip for a while
    100,000? you better return it unless you want to be Bubba’s girl at Block 5 of your local federal prison.
    1,000,000 Keep it but move to Costa Rica.

  • Slug

    Costa Rica? I’ll buy a small private island instead 🙂