Cash in on what you already own

Finding lost money.

For most, it happens during a hunt under a sofa cushion or stumbling on a dollar on the street.

Yet much larger unclaimed assets are waiting to be recovered, such as a forgotten bank account, uncollected paycheck, or utility deposit that was never refunded.

For Betty Hennessy, the found asset came in the form of stock that her husband, a former chemical engineer with Union Carbide, had purchased many years before he passed on.

After filing an initial claim for $370 with the West Virginia State Treasurer's Office, an in-depth search by the state's Unclaimed Property Division revealed that she was owed much, much more.

On March 3, Ms. Hennessy, a long-time resident of South Charleston, W. Va., ended up walking out of the State Treasurer's Office with a check for more than $25,000.

"It's not uncommon to find people like Mrs. Hennessy," says Nelson Sorah, a West Virginia deputy state treasurer. "Our state alone has over $65 million in unclaimed money."

Who wants $10 billion?

Nationally, more than $10 billion in assets are waiting to be claimed.

In fact, 1 in 10 Americans have forgotten about an asset, according to the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators (NAUPA).

Property becomes abandoned or unclaimed if the owner cannot be contacted by the holder of the asset within a specified period of time, usually five years.

It is then up to the state governments to place the funds in a trust account. The money is usually handled by a state's unclaimed property division - or in some states, the treasurer or comptroller's office.

The funds are held forever until claimed, and there is no time limit to claim money.

"Even though interest accrues to the states on unclaimed assets, all states make a diligent effort to locate the missing owners and reunite them with their lost assets," says Valerie Jundt, the executive director of NAUPA, based in Bismarck, N.D. "With a few exceptions, there is no cost to the owner."

Web sites stir interest

For decades, states have used traditional means to locate the owners of unclaimed property - placing ads in publications such as newspapers, inserts, and mailings to notify owners of property and how to claim it. Other outreach methods include booths at state fairs and shopping malls, and cross-referencing state-license information.

But within the past three years, the Internet has made it easier for the states to make owners of unclaimed property aware of its existence. Many have online search tools for individuals seeking unclaimed assets.

"The Internet has definitely educated people in our state on how to get their unclaimed money," says Nancy Russell, the unclaimed property director for the state of Wyoming, which was the second state in the country to list all its unclaimed property on the Internet. "As a result, we have seen an increase in claims and a slight increase in the amount of money that we have returned to its owners."

Some $1.5 million in unclaimed money was returned by Wyoming in fiscal year 1999 versus $1 million in fiscal year 1998.

Tracking down missing money is easy thanks to www.unclaimed.org and www.missingmoney.com. These Web sites allow you to hunt for any lost assets that might be held by states where you or your relatives have lived. Both sites list phone numbers and addresses for state unclaimed-property offices, plus links to 40 state Web sites.

The search is simple and free. Simply type in a name and matches will appear with the owner's last-known address and, in some cases, the amount.

If you believe the property is yours, you'll then have to file the required paperwork to collect.

For states that haven't yet put their unclaimed property on the Web, send letters listing birth dates, Social Security numbers, and the last known addresses of people you want checked.

Why pay when it's free?

With the increase in unclaimed money nationwide and an increase in claims (unclaimed.org gets 3 million to 4 million hits per day), there has also been a noticeable increase in unclaimed-money scams.

According to the NAUPA, the majority of these scams target senior citizens by asking them to send money for information about unclaimed property.

Often, postcards are mailed to consumers from "tracer" or "finder" firms that solicit individuals with promises of finding hidden treasure. What consumers don't realize is that they won't receive information telling them how much or even verify whether they are entitled to unclaimed property.

Rather they will get information on how to contact the states and possibly information on how to file a claim.

"In reality, that $14.95 buys an individual the same information that we provide free of charge," says Ms. Jundt of NAUPA. "And most important, never sign a contract which allows these finder firms to take a cut of your own money."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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