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Reclaiming lost bank accounts

Don't you think it would be next to impossible to forget about or lose track of one of your bank accounts? How about not remembering a safety deposit box crammed with stocks, insurance policies and jewelry? No way, right?

Well, millions of Americans do forget about their accounts. Sometimes they move and the bank can't find them, or they die without telling family members about an account.

Susan Burrage of Rockport, Mass., is $5,500 richer after finding money and stock her mother left behind without telling anyone. Burrage's mother was living in St. Petersburg, Fla., at the time of her death. One day Burrage got a letter from a company saying they had sent her mother's stock account to the state of Florida because the account had been dormant for so many years. Burrage then got a letter from another company that specializes in locating people and heirs who have unclaimed money.

"But they were going to take a percentage of the money," says Burrage. "So I decided to find out on my own what was going on. When I called Florida to ask about the stock account, they said they had a file of missing things -- five different accounts."

What happened was the accounts were dormant so long they were escheated to the state. Every state has its own time frame. A savings account might be considered dormant if there were no transactions for 365 days. That dormant account, depending on the state, would be escheated, or handed over, to the state anywhere from three to five years later. Some banks charge a fee when an account goes dormant, but they have to try to notify the customer first. They send a notice to the last known address and remind the customer there hasn't been any activity on the account. Some customers respond, others ignore the letter and some never get the letter because they've moved or died.

Thirty days before the account is about to be escheated to the state, the bank makes a last ditch effort to find the customer. At First Union headquarters in Charlotte, N.C., that job falls to Te Messerle and the eight people in her department. They take that job very seriously.

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Show me the money

"Last year we escheated to all 50 states," says Messerle. "We started with 43,855 accounts. By the time we finished we actually only turned over 8,337 accounts to the states. We started with $317,793,987.65 and turned over $14,004,925.47. We saved the bank $303 million."

Banks want to find people who have dormant accounts. They don't want to send that money to the state; they want to keep it in the bank.

Messerle says she was determined to find an elderly woman who had a $110,000 dormant account.

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