Money Matters: Lost and found

Unclaimed Baggage sign, rural Alabama.

TEXT OF STORY

KAI RYSSDAL: We ran an interview last year on the program on how to find unclaimed property. I'm not talking real estate here. I'm talking about cash and securities that could be yours. You just don't know it yet. Across the country, state treasurers are holding on to billions of dollars in uncashed paychecks, lost securities and forgotten safe deposit boxes. One of our listeners followed the advice in that interview. She checked a single website and hit pay dirt; $20,000. Not bad, really for a five-minute trip online. So we decided to revisit the topic. Jeb Spaulding is Vermont's State Treasurer. He's also the past President of the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators. Jeb, welcome back to the program.

JEB SPAULDING: It's a pleasure. Always glad to talk about unclaimed property and how we can give money back to people.

RYSSDAL: That's right, it's like found money. I have to tell you, we had a woman on the show not long after you and I talked, who called in and said she found $20,000 out there. I mean it can - it can really happen to anybody.

SPAULDING: Yeah. Actually, my staff came in and said we think we found somebody up in Burlington, Vermont area, and it looks like it's about $150,000, and it was a retired teacher whose husband had worked for a large grocery store chain back in, I think it was the 1960s or something, had gotten some stock, forgotten about it, and obviously it grew quite a bit. We found her easily and she was rather surprised and happy.

RYSSDAL: Boy, that's great. It is a little interesting, though, that there's so much unclaimed property out there that you guys need an association to sort of deal with the people who have to take care of it. Let's start with a definition of what unclaimed property really is.

SPAULDING: Unclaimed property refers to accounts in financial institutions, companies, non-profits, even state governments that are some kind of financially related property, whether it's a tax rebate or a savings account or travelers checks, or gift certificates, insurance policies. And when the institution, whether it's a private or public entity, loses contact with the person whose property it is, for a certain number of years, usually it's three or five years, they turn it over to the state to try to find the rightful owners. Every state has an unclaimed property office, and there are some easy ways for people to search and find out whether a particular state has something for them.

RYSSDAL: Well, let's do that. Let's lay out for people the big two or three ways to find what might be lost out there.

SPAULDING: First of all, you can do a search on missingmoney.com, and there are about 40 states that participate with that database. If your state isn't in that database, it'll show you how to reach them. So one is missingmoney.com. Another one is unclaimed.org, and that basically, that one there lists the unclaimed property offices and you can connect directly through unclaimed.org. I actually did this just about an hour ago just to make sure it works.

RYSSDAL: I mean if you go to Google or Yahoo, and type in unclaimed property and then put in any state in the country right after it, it'll bring you right to that Internet site. Now, if you do go to Google and type in just plain unclaimed property, though, there are several for profit institutions that will come up, and they are going to make money off finding you money, I guess, right?

SPAULDING: If you go through the state unclaimed property offices, and do the searches as we discussed, there is no cost. There are a number of private entities out there that are trying to make a buck off of reuniting people, and many of them are reputable organizations. They'll do the work for you. We always recommend that before you sign up with one of those companies, you might want to do the search yourself, because if it turns out it's a sizeable amount, and generally they're looking for the ones that are the bigger amounts, that's where the percentages for them will add up. You check it out yourself first, and there are some that are maybe not completely savory characters. Many of them are. Now some of the larger companies out there, or large corporations are hiring some of those error finders to try to find people before they turn it over to the state.

RYSSDAL: Yes, I bet. Before we go, probably ought to touch on the fact that just because it's lost and now has been found, that doesn't mean Uncle Sam has forgotten about it. If you find $100,000, you're going to owe the government a chunk of that money.

SPAULDING: Yes, that's true. You know, for example, if you were getting a tax refund and it was - it hadn't grown in value, you're not going to have to pay tax on that. On the other hand, if it was stock that had appreciated considerably in value, you would owe some tax on that property. So it's certainly something that you want to keep in mind. But listen, I actually am amazed how many people when they do go on these search sites, actually if they don't find some property for themselves, it would be for a family member or a friend, and everybody can always use it.

RYSSDAL: Jeb Spaulding is the State Treasurer of the great State of Vermont. He's also the past President of the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators. We'll have a link to all the Web sites that he talked about on our Web page. It's marketplace.org. Spaulding, thanks a lot for your time.

SPAULDING: It's always a pleasure. Thank you.

RYSSDAL: So what should you do with unexpected cash? We're here to help. Visit our Web site. It's marketplace.org and click on that button that says contact. This is Marketplace Money from American Public Media.

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