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Searching for unclaimed money? It's easier than it used to be.

Americans could be owed $33 billion in unclaimed money, such as forgotten bank accounts. The money per account is usually small, but the search process has become easier with the Internet.

By Staff writer / May 13, 2010

Safe-deposit boxes, bank accounts, stocks, uncashed dividend or payroll checks, traveler's checks, insurance policies, and customer overpayments may have been forgotten over the years, but now with the help of the Internet, you may be reunited with such 'unclaimed money.'

Bethany Versoy/The National Braille Press/PRNewsFoto/File

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News reports that Americans are owed $33 billion or more in "unclaimed money" conjure up images of lottery-style windfalls. The reality is that if you are able to find something like a long-forgotten bank account, the amount you reap will probably be small.

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The good news: It's a lot easier than it used to be to seek and find forgotten cash. Windfall or not, it doesn't hurt to poke around on Internet databases.

In the past decade, the rise of the Internet has made the process this simple: Enter your name and hit "go" on your state's unclaimed-property website. A list will pop up showing possible matches to be pursued, often with some hint of the amount of money involved.

Although states keep up the records, what we're talking about isn't tax-refund money. It's things like bank accounts, stocks, uncashed dividend or payroll checks, traveler's checks, insurance policies, customer overpayments, and contents of safe-deposit boxes. The state databases are the result of consumer-protection laws.

A search for "missing money" makes even more sense than usual at a time when many Americans are struggling financially.

CBS's "Early Show" reported Thursday morning that about $33 billion in unclaimed money resides with state treasuries and other agencies, waiting to be returned. This amounts to $280 per unclaimed payment, correspondent Rebecca Jarvis said.

That may be the average amount, but searches commonly turn up "less than $100."

"Unclaimed property laws have been around since at least the 1940s, but have become much broader and more enforced in the last 15 years," the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators (NAUPA) says on its website, which represents the state-level programs.

If you want to hunt for this kind of buried treasure, here are some tips:

• Two key resources for easy Web-based searching are unclaimed.org and MissingMoney.com. Both charge no fee, are supported by NAUPA, and draw on state-based lists of unclaimed money. The MissingMoney site, created by NAUPA in 1999, allows one-stop searching of more than half the states plus Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. Although not all states participate in MissingMoney, the unclaimed.org site will link you to state-level search tools.

• Remember to widen your searches in appropriate ways. You can try variations of your name (before a marriage, for example). You may have rights to some money that was owed to deceased relatives, so you can search with their names as well. Also, it may pay to look in all the states where you or the relatives have lived.

• The NAUPA site offers a page of links to other resources that may be helpful, including Canadian and Swiss sites for unclaimed bank accounts and US federal agencies such as Veterans Affairs and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.

Some of the government-backed websites also offer tips on avoiding scams. Some private services offer legitimate help in recovering lost assets, while others are trying to get your money unscrupulously.

On tax refunds, the Internal Revenue Service often finds you with an amount you're owed. Schedule M for income tax is a case in point: Thousands of Americans are receiving tax refunds based on the "making work pay" tax credit. For those who failed to claim it, the IRS made the correction for them.

Finally, all these reminders about lost money point back to a more basic reality: The best way to claim your money is not to lose track of it in the first place.

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