The strangest thing that’s turned up in the Berkeley campus’s lost and found in the last five years is unprintable in polite company.
Let’s just say, if it had been yours, you’d have needed an adult party store and some lung power to replace it.
Campus police were not about to give it back, even if its owner had been identified, says Gabrielle Voit, the records supervisor who has run the lost and found since 2005.
Normally, Voit takes great pride in restoring found items — cellphones, sunglasses, ID cards, jewelry and cash are the usual suspects — to their rightful owners, most of them students.
The UC Police Department’s newly refurbished, easier-to-use lost-and-found website has the potential to be a big help, she says.
Over the past few months, Kalonica McQuesten, the department’s communications manager, has made the website much more user-friendly.
Items that are turned in to the campus’s central lost and found, in the UCPD’s headquarters in Sproul Hall’s basement, are listed on the website, with a brief description. People looking to reconnect with their valuables can sort the listings by type of item, date or location where found.
Lost items can be reported through the site, as well, allowing Voit and her team to make instant matches with things that are turned in. About 10 percent of the found items brought to the counter at 1 Sproul have already been reported missing or stolen.
In 2009, for example, 1,669 pieces of stuff turned up in the lost and found, according to Voit. Thirty-five percent were returned. Many were turned in by the people who found them, or were brought over from informal lost and founds in some campus buildings.
So far this year, 981 pieces of found property have been listed on the site. One recent day, there were 25 ID cards, 15 pieces of jewelry (including a religious dog tag and a class ring from Elaine High School), 15 watches, 10 cellphones, four iPods, three cameras, two lots of cash and two furs (found at Zellerbach Hall).
If the owner can’t be located within 90 days, the stuff goes up on a national property auction site, propertyroom.com — the eBay of police departments,” McQuesten calls it.
Cash that’s not claimed goes to the UC Board of Regents, under state statute, McQuesten says. Last year, the regents were the beneficiaries of 23 lots of found cash, whose total worth wasn’t recorded in the police statistics, Voit says.
Voit and her colleagues do their best to make sure neither happens.
First they look for a name associated with a found item, which is easiest with a wallet or ID. “If your email is published in the campus directory, we will email you,” Voit says. Or they’ll call.
Voit and her student employees also scour the Internet. Facebook is “the greatest thing to happen to lost and found in a long time,” Voit says, because she and her Web-savvy students contact many people through the online social networking site. Young people, especially, are easier to find there, according to Voit.
One time, two people’s wallets, passports and airline tickets turned up in the lost and found, but the information contained in them wasn’t enough to let Voit contact their owners immediately. But the wallet contained a receipt — the owner had just bought a Harley Davidson. Voit called the motorcycle dealer, who got a message to the owners.
“I will do almost anything to get their stuff back,” Voit says.
The lost and found can sometimes bring out the worst in people looking for their lost possessions.
“It doesn’t actually help to come and scream and yell at us and have a hissy fit,” Voit observes drily. “There’s no study that confirms a relationship between yelling loudly and getting your stuff back.”
But it can also bring out the best.
Voit tells the story of a new freshman who found a wallet stuffed with $650, thousands of Japanese yen and credit cards, at a bus stop near campus during Welcome Week. She and her father brought it to 1 Sproul, and the girl wrote a note to leave with the wallet that said something like this:
“I’ve learned a few things since I came here, and you really shouldn’t keep all your passwords and PIN numbers in the same wallet as your cards.”
Voit went on Facebook and found the owner: another new freshman, from Japan. She got her stuff back.
A couple of weeks ago, an officer returning a found debit card recognized its owner as the same student who’d lost his backpack earlier in the day, in a different location — and gotten that back, too. “The officer told him, ‘You’re so lucky today, you need to go buy a lottery ticket,’ ” Voit recounts.
Cash is one of the trickiest items for the lost and found. Someone who loses cash must go to Sproul Hall to pick it up — and will have to say when and where it was lost, and exactly how much.
“If you say ‘I lost a wad of money sometime last month,’ we’re not coughing up anything. That’s happened,” says Voit.
Likewise, descriptions of found items listed online deliberately don’t disclose full details. The police hold back information that only the owner would know — a cellphone background, for example.
In 2009, 64 percent of all the items turned in to the lost and found were never returned. Sometimes that’s because it’s contraband, like a knife. Once, a tight roll of bills adding up to $550 went unclaimed, Voit says.
But more often, it’s because the owner’s contact information registered with the campus isn’t up-to-date, or there’s no name or identifying feature on their property.
Another reason found items may not make their way back to their owner is that some campus buildings continue to maintain their own informal lost and founds, where old umbrellas and sunglasses may languish. Voit has persuaded some — but not all — to turn found items in to the central lost and found regularly, so they can be listed on the website.
But in the meantime, the “helpful hints” on the website suggest that people looking for something they’ve lost retrace their steps and ask around in buildings they visited.
Voit also recommends that people who find a lost item bring it to the police to return instead of trying to find its owner themselves, for safety reasons. Similarly, she says that anyone contacted about a found item should ask the finder to drop it off at 1 Sproul.
For health reasons, food, clothing and bedding are not accepted in the lost and found.