SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A Salt Lake City company specializing in the little-known business of tracking down heirs to unclaimed inheritances pleaded not guilty Friday in a federal antitrust case that's part of a wider U.S. Department of Justice probe into the industry.
Kemp & Associates is accused of conspiring with fellow heir-tracking companies for more than 14 years so the firms wouldn't have to compete with each other and driving up costs for heirs who are rightly entitled to the money.
The company and executive Daniel Mannix have denied any wrongdoing. Their lawyers contend the firm provides an important service for people who wouldn't otherwise know about estates they are entitled to, often from long-lost relatives.
Mannix and the company are each facing one antitrust count. Each defendant could face a fine of up to $1 million or twice the loss to the victims. Mannix could face up to 10 years in prison.
A two-week trial was set for late November, though that's expected to be delayed because of the complexity of the case.
Defense attorneys declined additional comment Friday.
The industry defends its practices, saying it has helped heirs secure millions of dollars in inheritances. Companies like Kemp employ workers who sift through probate filings in search of people who have recently died and who may have missing or unknown heirs.
Using court records, genealogical documents and other public data, they track down whoever would be the beneficiaries, then reach out to them and offer to help them document their connection to the deceased and claim the money that would otherwise go to the state.
If they're successful, the company collects a fee.
The firms typically withhold details like the name of the deceased or the amount of the inheritance until after they secure a contract.
Though the companies stand behind their business practices, they also tacitly acknowledge their calls can raise eyebrows. Firms' websites include frequently-asked-question sections with rhetorical queries like "How do I know this is legitimate?" and "Is this some type of scam?" along with answers meant to reassure potential customers their methods are sound.
The probe led by Chicago prosecutors has resulted in plea deals with a California company and two executives. Prosecutors say Kemp and Mannix colluded with one those executives.
The charges allege the companies worked together so they wouldn't have to compete with each other to offer the best price or service.
If two firms were trying to sign the same long-lost heir, one company might agree to back off in exchange for part of the fees, prosecutors said in court documents. If there were multiple heirs to a single unclaimed estate, the firms would split up the relatives so everyone got part of the revenue, the charging documents state.