investing

How to Find Money

"Money causes problems in the world," muttered John Dahl in the film noir classic, Detour, "simply because there's too little of it."

But why is there too little of it -- especially in my checking account? Maybe this e-mail I received explains it:

 It's all so clear now: Obviously the Pappas fortune was somehow cast adrift like Thurston and Lovey Howell on Gilligan's Island. And all that hot naked money is just sitting there, tapping its dainty little foot, waiting for me to pick it up and live happily ever after, like the battling brides of Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?

Where do you find this booming gusher of unclaimed greenbacks? The Net, where there's a booming business in "asset recovery" sites that want to help introduce you to your long-lost money the way Prince Charming wanted to introduce Cinderella to a glass pump. This is no fairy tale, either: According Kim Usiak, CEO of the free-to-use National Unclaimed Property Database, "About one in 10 visitors here end up finding missing property."

Sites such as Usiak's help steer you to valuables left unclaimed when banks, businesses and governments lost track of the rightful owners. Conservatively estimated at $10 billion overall and averaging $100-$300 apiece, these goodies consist of tax refunds, mortgage refunds, stocks and bonds, dividends, unclaimed insurance benefits, utility deposits, safety deposit boxes, mineral royalty payments, neglected banks accounts and more. Usually they become lost due to their owners moving without leaving a forwarding address, mistakes by the post office or clerical errors (in 1998, for instance, 100,000 IRS refunds averaging $690 each couldn't reach the taxpayers they were owed to because of incorrect addresses), companies gone bankrupt, women who changed their last names, or family and friends who died without a will and didn't have the good manners to do the proper paperwork naming you as the rightful heir.

But it wouldn't matter if you were Howard Hughes' heir if you leave that money as untouched as an underage Osmond family female. Just like abandoned land was returned to the King under British common law, forgotten and unclaimed assets revert to the state they're located in, generally after they've lain dormant for anywhere from three to five years. That's because in 1965 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unclaimed property must be returned to the state of the property owner's last known address. If no one knows that address, then it's sent back to the state in which the business holding the asset is incorporated. Don't worry that states will play grab-asset with it, though -- almost every one passed unclaimed property laws in the 1970s and 1980s which keep the asset in a perpetual trust until the owner or the heirs come a-calling.

"He who hesitates is poor," Zero Mostel explained in The Producers. Don't hesitate to try Foundmoney.com. Just type in your first, middle and last names (or the name of your business), and it will dig through U.S., Canadian and Swiss institutions (the last is probably mainly for Holocaust victims) like a reporter for the National Enquirer racooning through Madonna's garbage cans.

When I tried FoundMoney.com, it fetched 11 possible accounts (remember, "accounts" could mean anything, from shares of IBM to that Christmas Club savings plan that gave me 2 percent to a cut of Jed Clampett's oil strike) that may belong to me, ranging from $66 to $535. At last my boyhood dream of moving up from government cheese and Colt .45 to an unassuming Ubriaco bathed in Cabernet, Merlot and Raboso wines for 30 to 50 days and a jug of Mumm Cordon Rouge Brut Champagne seemed within reach. Was there a catch?

Does Bill Gates fill out the long form?

To zero in on the details and see if I was the right Charles Pappas, I would have to buy a password, for $20. For that one Andrew Jackson, my password would enable me to carry out a Detail Search. According to the site, "a Detail Search would reveal the full legal name of the unclaimed account holder and the name of the institution holding the funds. " I'll also learn the owner's last known address, city and state/province or country, which could help confirm whether I'm the right person. (Search services might not use your Social Security number, making it more hit-and-miss, since it's likely others with names like yours will also have unclaimed items.) The Search might also tell me how much the property is worth, who's holding on to it (a bank, for instance, or a phone company) and its ID number.

So the initial search for the money was free but following it more closely or even getting it back was not -- that's how most asset recovery firms work. They act as a middleman in one of two ways: Like FoundMoney.com, they point you to the institution in whose grubby mitts your money rests, or they offer to contact whoever currently possesses it and do the paperwork to transfer it back to you. If it's the latter, their take of your fortune is anywhere from 10 percent to 50%.

 You might come up with a forgotten fortune if you surf over to the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators (NAUPA). A nonprofit organization whose members represent the 50 states and the District of Columbia, NAUPA provides contact info on each state's unclaimed property divisions. Their sister site, MissingMoney.com is aimed more at consumers, and supplies completely free searches there too. As with the other search services, you type in your last name and first name (and ZIP, which the site collects for demographic purposes), and the system noses around for any unclaimed assets with your name on them. The advanced search here uses that same information, plus your middle name and the name of any previous street you lived on to try and make the matches more precise.

MissingMoney ferreted out 12 possibles. Most included part or all of the following: the missing owner's last known location, the asset's worth, and the current holder (e.g., Bell Atlantic). Three were three exact matches, and nine near-matches with first names (e.g., Christopher and Christos) similar to mine.

Ignore these at your own peril. I may have used an alternative version of my name -- Chas, say, or Charley -- or it may have been recorded wrongly by someone with the attention span of a DMV worker or a mayfly, but I repeat myself. Sadly, the extended descriptions convinced me that, while handsomely christened, they were not *this* Charles Pappas. Looks like it's back to government cheese for me, and looks like I'm not going to be loading up the truck and moving to Beverly.

But not necessarily for you. With a constantly updated database, MissingMoney.com's no-charge newsletter can keep you current with a flow of unclaimed and abandoned treasure that would choke Long John Silver. If you're lucky, you'll find out if Cyndi Lauper is right when she sings "Money Changes Everything."

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