Unclaimed Money Recovery: Is it a Scam or an Opportunity?

by Jessica Sommerfield · 4 comments

money recovery
Have you been personally targeted by ads offering to help you find “unclaimed” money? If you immediately wrote them off as scams, you were wise — but that doesn’t mean unclaimed money itself is a scam. The US government estimates that billions of dollars each year go unclaimed, just as the advertisements say — and your name could be on some of it.

No one says no to money that belongs to them. This is the reason unclaimed money scams are so widespread. Even if there’s only a slim chance you’ve inherited a fortune, you may be entitled to anything from a few dollars to a few hundred dollars — money that could go toward a savings goal, paying off debt, or just enjoying a nice dinner out.

If you’re interested in reconnecting with your long-lost dollars, it’s important to know how to recognize the scams and find legitimate sources. But, first, let’s discuss where all this unclaimed money comes from.

find unclaimed moneyThe Origin of Unclaimed Money

Sometimes, people deposit a small sum in a savings account and forget about it, overpay a utility bill, or qualify for an unexpected tax refund. If they move and fail to leave a forwarding address, it can be impossible for the issuing party to locate them — especially if they move out of state. After a year, unclaimed property laws usually dictate that this money is returned to the state, where the sum is held until it can be returned to its rightful owner.

Here’s a short list of common sources:

  • Banks — checking and savings account balances, earned interest, deposit boxes
  • Employers — final payroll checks or unused vacation pay
  • Federal or private investments — account balances or interest
  • Service providers — overpayments or credits
  • Housing providers — security deposits, mortgage-related refunds
  • Life insurance policies — beneficiary payouts

If you’ve moved a few times and suspect one of these sources owe you something, you’ll have to be proactive: state governments won’t seek you out on their own, but they’re more than willing to return money that belongs to you if you use the proper channels to ask for it.

Identifying Fraudulent Offers

Fortunately, the states’ typical way of handling unclaimed money makes it easier to eliminate fraudulent offers: you can strongly assume that anyone posing as state agent offering access to your unclaimed money is a fraud.

Secondly, if anyone asks you to pay a fee for this service up-front, they’re in it for personal profit. Nothing is stopping them from taking your fee and running to the next person.

Finding and claiming money through the proper channels is completely free and something you can do yourself — it only requires providing information that verifies your identity. However, there are still honest services that charge a small “finder’s fee” for people who don’t have the time or patience to search and fill out paperwork. If you’ve researched the agency, there’s nothing wrong with using one of these services, but keep in mind that you should seriously consider trying to locate the sum yourself if the fee exceeds more than 10 to 20% of their findings.

Finding Unclaimed Money

As more people become aware of unclaimed money and search through the proper channels, federal and state agencies have been returning significant portions of it to rightful owners. The National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators (NAPUA) reports that, in 2015, state agencies successfully returned $3.25 billion of the $7.763 billion in unclaimed money collected.

Here’s a rundown of trustworthy sources for finding unclaimed money.

1. Anything and Everything — State and Federal Agency Sites

Each state has its own database of unclaimed assets. If you’re not sure where to go for your state or want to search for missing money in several states, you can access each state’s website directly from the NAPUA site — unclaimed.org. NAPUA also endorses missingmoney.com, a search engine that helps people find missing funds reported by a long list of participating states. This page also lists each state agency’s contact information.

 2. Missing Tax Refunds

When IRS tax refund checks are undeliverable, they stay with the IRS. You can find out if you’re missing any refunds by using the “Where’s My Refund?” page (www.irs.gov/refunds) and providing your Social Security information.

3. Employee Benefits, Money from Financial Institutions & Investment Companies

The NAPUA site also lists several sources for finding lost employee and survivor benefits, including the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC), the Department of Labor’s Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA), and the VA.

If you’re looking for money from closed banks and credit unions where you’ve held accounts, lost US savings bonds, investment company claims or credits, check the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) site, the National Credit Union Administration, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and Treasury Direct.

Preventing Unclaimed Money

Unclaimed money does exist — and there are reputable sources to help you find it — but the fact that so much money goes unclaimed, often for years at a time, hints at a larger problem.

While we can’t prevent companies from folding and mix-ups in the mail, we can do our best to stay mindful of all the places our money is held, fill out those change-of-address forms, and inquire at the source as soon as we’re missing anything. After all, the more money that stays in our pockets, the better.

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  • Terry Wright says:

    Thanks for the unclaimed money tips Jessica. There were times in the past where I forgot to cash in rebate checks. Some of those had an expiration of 180 days. The last time I found one, I attempted to get a new check printed from the issuer. Unfortunately, they charged me a $25 processing fee. Since the check amount was more than the fee, I felt it was worth it.

  • Steveark says:

    My brother mentioned there was less than $100 in a state account with our dad’s name on it. He died a few years ago and my brother and I had already split his estate between us, which was substantial. Frankly $100 was not worth my time to collect, especially since $50 would go to bro. But after I read this I got on the state auditor’s web site and did a free search and found the amount of dividend checks the state had cashed and were holding in my dad’s name were worth $1,012! That’s worth a little more effort so I spent about one hour gathering up the documents that the state said I needed to provide and mailed them in. I’ll have to wait and see if it works out OK. But thanks for giving me the nudge I needed to follow through.

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