Ted Roth, sports a riverboat gambler's mustache, dark glasses, a clip-on bow tie and a shirt made largely of petroleum by-products. His original hair color is anyone's guess. His smile is not unlike that of a man about to sell a '64 Impala in need of a valve job to a 16-year-old cheerleader out after her first car.
It would not be unnatural to recoil slightly at at the sight of him at the front door.
But it would be wise to hear him out, because he usually comes bearing gifts. Ted Roth, founder of Missing Heirs International, gives away money to strangers.
The 61-year-old New Yorker finds people who are unknowing heirs to money left by those who die intestate -- without leaving a will. Often, he is retained by courts, banks, lawyers or any number of private concerns to locate these people. He claims to have closed 100,000 cases in 35 years in the business and that he earns an income of six figures a year.
The catch has been, and still is, to persuade the heirs to accept the money coming to them. Roth receives remuneration only when the heir has received his money. On many occasions, he has watched his 50 percent finder's fee disappear with the slam of a door by a skeptical heir.
"You can't give the money away," he said."It's the amazing facet of this business. People close their doors on me. They don't believe it, in spite of my reputation."
He says the most frustrating case for him involved a man who said no to $7 million because in accepting the money he would have had to acknowledge his illegitimacy. That, Roth contended, was a $3.5 million tragedy for him.
He says he got another Excedrin headache when a woman refused a substantial amount of money on the advice of her astrologer.
Staffers at the New York attorney general's office make no effort to disguise the contempt in their voices for the man and his trade.
"Heir chasing is one of the lowest grades of detective work," one assistant attorney general said, "It doesn't enjoy a particularly good reputation in the courts.
"We don't think that money should be paid to him for what he does," the man continued. "We don't think that his services are a benefit to the community at large."
Such charges bother Roth not at all.
"You need police as well as law training," he explained in his office in midtown Manhattan. "You need to know genealogy and you need a hell of a good sales pitch, too. That's as important as the detective work."
Roth's detective work is far less dramatic than one might expect. A good deal of his time is spent poring through probate court records and taking shots in the dark in myriad telephone books. His library, which he describes as "invaluable," consists largely of telephone books from all over the country and New York City directories dating back to 1870.
His walls are covered with such curiosities as the picture of an august-looking judge glaring down at an attorney and asking, "Have you accounted for all of the heirs?"
"I'm egotistical," he concedes, and there's evidence in his office to prove it. Covering the better part of one wall is a gigantic collage of articles written about or by him or concerning the missing heir trade in general. It is full of such newspaper headlines as "Marjorie's $2 Million Question," "Forgotten Treasure," and "There's a Fortune Waiting For You."
Roth also cultivates a mysterious image, which invites skepticism. He claims to have attended two years of law school but won't say where. He won't say where he went to college either. His address is secret.
He brushes aside questions about his own credibility. "I've had threats against me. I'm very careful."
What bothers the people at the attorney general's office is the issue of the finder's fee. Roth operates in a murky legal area that they believe is badly in need of regulation.
"I suppose that he does some good sometimes for some people, but the question is whether or not 50 percent is a reasonable figure," one assistant attorney general said.
Roth's response is that 50 percent of something is better than 100 percent of nothing; without Ted Roth and his good news; the heirs would never know about their good luck, he maintains.
"You wouldn't know where to begin to find the money," one assistant attorney general explained. "The attorney general or the state comptroller might now know. You wouldn't even know what state to look in."
Often recipients of Roth's good news don't realize this. Instead of signing a contract cutting a 50-deal with him after he has told them they have money coming, they want to brush him off, or simply thank him politely -- convinced they can find the money without him. It's then that Roth needs one superb sales pitch.
He finds nothing unethical about his procedures."Look, I can spend years hunting for someone, and I don't work for retainers," he said. "I have to cover all my own expenses. I don't get a cent until the person signs the contract. By then I have a lot coming to me."
The New York attorney general's office also isn't particularly happy with Roth's claims for services upon locating an asset, such as an undiscovered bank account, which belonged to a person who didn't leave a will.
"He tries to get fees for recovering personal property that would eventually go to the state abandoned property fund," one staffer said. "There's no statute of limitations on that."
"I object," is the only word in their vocabulary." responds Roth to his adversaries. "They're always fighting me. I've probably kept $25 million to $30 million away from the state's abandoned property fund, and the attorney general doesn't like that because he uses the money to balance his budget."
Under New York law, the state may use assets kept in the abandoned property fund while unclaimed. And it is no secret that the state does not exactly break its back to locate missing heirs.
Roth says he didn't enjoy that much success in his first 20 years in the business and gave it up for the military CID (Criminal Investigation Division) in Europe for two years.
But frustrated by the bureaucracy and low wages, he returned eventually to the United States and another crack at his particular corner of the gumshoe trade. Business gradually picked up. Today, he has three persons working for him.
"I have friends in banks who are put out to pasture when they reach 60," he said. "I'm my own boss. There isn't enough money in the world to make me work for someone else now. I can stay in business as long as my legs will carry me."