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When unclaimed becomes unclaimable

LISA NAPOLI: It's hard to imagine you could ever forget where your money is.
I'm not talking about your wallet. I'm talking about stocks you bought, or bank accounts you opened and then lost track of. There's billions of dollars of unclaimed cash out there. And if that money is yours, you have a right to ask the state to give it back.

Then of course, there's the dark side of the story - what's been happening in California. We asked Marketplace's Steve Henn to investigate.

STEVE HENN: Right now, state governments have $40 billion in unclaimed property. Bank accounts that have been abandoned, stocks, bonds and jewels left for years in safe-deposit boxes.

But I've always wondered: who exactly forgets that they have thousands of dollars in assets sitting somewhere? I mean, what kind of idiots are these people?

Meet Steven Tucker. Thing is, Tucker's not an idiot. He's a pretty savvy investor who started working for Intel in the late 70s.

STEVEN TUCKER: I was European product manager for their systems business.
He took advantage of the employee stock plan and by the mid-1990s owned more than 16,000 shares in the company. Then in 1995, Tucker noticed something odd.

TUCKER: I realized that I actually hadn't received stock certificates from the last split of the stock.

He contacted Intel.

TUCKER: And they said "Oh that's OK, we can issue the certificates. Just give us the certificates for your existing stock." Which I did. There response was, "There are no stock certificates with those numbers." That's when this word "escheatment" entered my vocabulary.

What was that?

Turns out if you own stock and the company loses track of where you live, they're legally required to list your investment as unclaimed property - and after a few years, turn it over to a state government.

As Tucker found out, state's like California can seize your assets without you ever realizing it happened.

Tucker's next step: he called California's unclaimed property office.

TUCKER: So I contacted them and said I, you know, I want my property back. And they said "Well, here's the thing: we've probably sold it."

For $25,000. At the time, it was worth 10 times that. Not something to laugh about - today, it would be worth more than a million dollars. Tucker's now 55 and says his dream of an early retirement is gone.

TUCKER: Honestly, that's one of the biggest challenges with this situation is I'm not sure what they could have done to have prevented this.

Unclaimed property has provided billions of dollars in revenue to California and other states in the last decade. And states have become much more aggressive about going out and getting it.

TRACEY REID: They use it for things like general fund overages, education, transportation, padding whatever budget shortfall they may have.

Tracey Reid's an attorney who helps defend companies from unclaimed property audits. She says the less property that's returned to its rightful owners, the more money that flows into a states' coffers.

Years ago, California stopped publishing the names of people like Tucker in the newspaper - even though California law requires the state to do that.

REID: They're not the only state with this problem. They're the first state to be caught.

Before a company turns over property to a state, all it's required to do is send a letter to the owner at their last-known address.

REID: They're not required to Google it, to ask the post office to give them a forwarding address or to do anything extra to find a new address.

So how can you make sure what happened to Steven Tucker doesn't happen to you?

Reid says keep careful track of your investments. Especially after you move, or if a company you're invested in mergers. If you don't, you could easily lose your property to the state where the new company is incorporated.

But most important: make sure the companies you invest in always know exactly how to reach you.

I'm Steve Henn for Marketplace Money.

About the author

Steve Henn was Marketplace’s technology and innovation reporter for the entire portfolio of Marketplace programs until December 2011.
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