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Unclaimed Property: Forgotten Money Found

Greg McFarlane

You've probably experienced it, and if you haven't, you're missing out on one of life's minor pleasures: unexpectedly finding a $20 bill in the pocket of an article of clothing you haven't worn since last year.

On a larger scale, people get unexpectedly enriched every day. It happens via the unclaimed property departments that sit in each state's capital, and also in Washington. These departments' express purpose is to return such property to where (and to whom) it belongs. The unclaimed property business is one of the least publicized activities of most governments at the federal and state levels, and at any given moment there's over $33 billion sitting there idle, looking to find its way home.

SEE: 10 (Costly) Tickets To fast Cash

It makes sense that if you don't know the property's there, you wouldn't think to look for it. So, if you do receive unsolicited communication telling you what you might be missing out on some property, take heed.

Property to Be Claimed
Human nature being what it is, it's rare for people to offer valuables to other people with absolutely no strings attached. Therefore, should you ever receive an email or letter (or click on an ad) promising to reunite you with your long-lost stuff, a little precaution will take you far. The standard instructions are to discard any email you receive that mentions you've got property waiting to be claimed, but believe it or not, personal experience shows that such emails can indeed be legitimate.

Case in point, a recent missive from the state treasurer's office claiming that free money was there for the asking. The initial assumption from a wary consumer is that if this isn't a phishing attempt, then at the very least it must be a trap. Perhaps the email did, indeed, come from the government. But that could mean there's an unpaid parking ticket or unanswered jury summons waiting, and the bait of "unclaimed property" is just a ruse to get the gullible to answer and provide information about himself. It's not unlike those police departments that offer free football tickets to deadbeat dads, only to replace the tickets with handcuffs.

SEE: How To Avoid Online Scams

At least in one case, it didn't work that way. The state did ask for identifying information and proceeded to mention that they'd been holding identifiable property for some time. "Property" that was in fact cash, in the form of insurance premium overpayments, but property nonetheless. There was $809.11 worth, which teaches another lesson - log in and check your insurance and other accounts regularly. No, the state didn't offer interest, but an unexpected $809.11 principal payment is a lot better than nothing. A quick trip to the state treasurer's website verified the original email.

To Good to Be True?
It sounded like pennies from heaven, but it's really just the result of the law being followed. Such overpayments, whether from unclaimed savings accounts, neglected safe deposit boxes, or other financial vehicles, have to be reported to each state's unclaimed property office. Sometimes the list of property is posted publicly. Then the property sits with the state, waiting for its rightful owners to make their move. Nor is there a statute of limitations regarding unclaimed property.

Most such found money is minor, the median payout being somewhere south of $100. Occasionally, life-changing amounts sit there idle, sometimes for generations. Last December a Missouri woman received $6.1 million from her state, one of the largest-ever government checks that didn't involve either a lawsuit or a lottery ticket. The woman's ascendants had bought a security, which, though forgotten, rose in value over the years. The state treasurer did the noble thing and maintained the woman's anonymity, but most amounts owed (and would-be claimants) are listed publicly by the relevant state.

Again, be smart about it. A private third party that offers to return your unclaimed property to you must have a profit motive behind it. Best case scenario, that means the third party is looking for a cut of your property, which you shouldn't have to pay if you deal directly with your state government. Worst case scenario, the third party wants you to pay a fee up-front or provide a credit number.

The Bottom Line
So, do yourself a favor. Hunt for treasure without leaving your computer. Google "(your state's name)" plus "unclaimed property," and you can search the database and see if and what you've got coming to you.

SEE: Taxes: Who Pays And How Much?

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