Nearly $33 billion in unclaimed assets sits in state treasuries and other agencies waiting to be handed over to its rightful owners: money from forgotten bank accounts and insurance policies, for instance, uncashed paychecks and stock dividends, decades-old security deposits paid to utility companies.
You can do this yourself, for free. There's no need for self-described "finders" or "locators" offering their "expertise" in retrieving your entitlement — for a fee.
At best, they're legal but unnecessary "convenience service" middlemen who charge commissions up to 40 percent of the recovered amount. Often they do little more than guide you to those websites or provide you with forms that they downloaded for free.
Others are outright scammers who demand outrageous upfront fees and or try to wheedle personal information from you that's then used for identity theft.
The latest warning about unclaimed property scams concerns an outfit calling itself the Florida Department of Financial Restitution. Claiming to have a contract with that state, it asks for an upfront fee of $600 when it promises citizens help in retrieving unclaimed property.
In reality, says Jeff Atwater of the real state agency, the Florida Department of Financial Services, this group has no ties to the government or even a legal corporate standing. He says it contacts people telling them they have unclaimed property when, in fact, they do not.
Similar warnings about fraudsters with names that seem reassuringly legit have been issued in other states. In emails, phone calls and sometimes mailed letters, they may pose as or claim ties to government officials or the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators (NAUPA), a real organization that represents state officials who manage unclaimed property programs.
Recently, bogus NAUPA officials were proven to be identity thieves trying to get personal information, while simultaneously running an overseas phone scam.
The legitimate finders make no false claims and contact rightfully owed property owners whom they identify through state freedom of information acts. In some states, these companies are restricted to commissions of no more than 10 percent (but may charge more anyway). In any case, they are usually unnecessary because it's always free — and can take only minutes.
Here are other tips on how to steer clear of unclaimed property cons.
- By law, the financial institutions and companies that owe the lost loot are supposed to try to find the owners. So if you get a notice from a bank, insurer or other company claiming as such, look up the contacts of its corporate headquarters yourself (don't rely on what you're given in the notice) and call to ensure that the claim is legitimate.
- When companies can't reach the owners of the unclaimed property, the money is turned over to the state government in which the account owner last resided. Some state offices will then mail notices to the owner's last known address. Others simply wait for you to check. But they'll never use email to contact you and it's unlikely they will call. So unless you get a mailed notification — which you should still authenticate by contacting that state treasurer or comptroller — assume it's a scam.
- If you have unclaimed money, you'll be asked for your Social Security number on the official state agency website. But you won't be asked for bank or credit card information. No personal information should ever be given unless you initiate contact with the state agency or use its website.
- State treasurers and comptrollers do not outsource the job of tracking down owners of unclaimed money and property. So don't believe people who claim they're working "on behalf" of the state agency or the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators.
Also of interest: Join the AARP Savings Challenge.
Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.