Dear Readers,
Billions of dollars worth of cash and property is waiting to be claimed and some of it could be yours! No kidding.

While exact numbers are hard to come by, here’s a small sample:

— The IRS is looking for 87,485 taxpayers whose 2003 tax refunds were returned because their address was invalid. Total amount: $73 million.

— Then there’s another $2.5 billion owed to people who failed to file an income tax return for 2000, plus another $2.5 billion owed taxpayers who didn’t file in 1999. (The numbers for 2001 and later aren’t available yet.).

— The Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation, the federal agency that insures company pensions, is looking for the folks who are owed $75 million in uncollected benefits.

— The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which insures most bank and savings and loan deposits also has money to give out. If you or someone you know had money in a bank that was liquidated or became insolvent, the money they had on deposit is insured up to $100,000. The FDIC is also holding dividend checks owed to investors who owned stock in an insured bank.

— Insurers are holding both life insurance proceeds that were never claimed as well as money that was paid out when the company "de-mutualized." This occurs when an insurance firm goes from being owned by its policy holders to being owned by stockholders.

— All 50 states are holding either money or tangible property waiting for the rightful owner or heir to submit a claim.

Florida alone has more than $1 billion in assets! As the website for the Florida Department of Financial Services says, this is "mostly from dormant accounts in financial institutions, insurance and utility companies, safe deposit boxes, and trust holdings." There are also watches, jewelry, stamps, and other valuable personal items.

How does the government end up with someone’s personal assets? You can thank the "escheat" laws in every state. They essentially say that a private company or municipality has to turn property over to the state if the legal owner of the property doesn’t claim it within a certain period of time.

That deposit you had to give the utility company in order to get the electricity turned on in the apartment you rented back in 1985, for instance. Or the money left in that bank account you didn’t know your grandfather had. Stock dividend checks that were returned to the issuing corporation because Aunt Helga entered the nursing home and no one knew she even owned the stock. The property tax refund you were sent after you sold your home and moved to another state.

Once unclaimed property gets turned over to the treasurer or controller’s office, a state may make some attempt to let you know. But the amount of effort they make varies. In my case, I found out because my state treasurer published a list of owner’s of unclaimed property in a full-page newspaper ad. My brother-in-law happened to see my name and called me. Turns out, three paychecks from a former employer are being held for me. But if a relative hadn’t seen the notice, I’d still be in the dark!

The good news is the information is easy to access because every state and federal government holding unclaimed assets posts this on their Internet site.

Typing "unclaimed property" into your internet search engine will turn up pages of Web sites that promise to help you locate what’s rightfully yours. Trouble is, most want to charge you for this "service." Frankly, all they’re doing is going to each individual government website and cross-checking your name on the database, which is something you could do yourself.

"CashUnclaimed.com," for instance, told me it "located $1,542.90 which may belong to Gail Buckner," then told me I’d have to pay $11.00 for a 30-day membership to get more details. Other sites charge anywhere from $10.00 and up to run a search for you. But beware! The quoted price could be per name. In other words, if you wanted to search under your married name as well as your maiden name, that might be a whole new charge.

With a little digging you can find websites that will help you weed through multiple state and federal databases for free. If you’re looking for one-stop shopping, start with the website sponsored by the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators, which you can get to by typing "naupa" into your Internet search engine. A map of the United States will come up. All you have to do is click on the state you want to check and this will bring up a link to that state’s unclaimed property office.

Another helpful and totally free site to try is www.nupn.com. This website, which is just a couple of months old, was started by a retired airline pilot who says he simply wanted to provide a public service so people could find this information without having to pay for it. (While there is no membership or sign-up fee to use the "nupn.com" site, watch out for ads inserted by the internet provider. If you wander into one of these links, you will soon discover that they charge for their services.)

Jim Calhoun told me the impetus for the National Unclaimed Property Network was a call his wife received from a private investigator who told her he had located money in her name. All he wanted was a 30% cut. "In about two hours of searching the internet," says Calhoun, I discovered that every state and lots of federal agencies have searchable websites for unclaimed property." He found the money due his wife — $112. (P.S.: she got the whole amount instead of 70% of it.)

From www.nupn.com you can link to every state agency as well as federal departments such as

the IRS, PBGC, Housing and Urban Development, FDIC, Department of Veterans Affairs. There’s also information about insurance companies holding unclaimed property.

Calhoun says don’t get discouraged if you don’t find anything with your name attached to it right away. He suggests taking a broad approach by just using your last name (no all agencies will let you do this). If you get a lot of hits, narrow it down by adding your first name.

Don’t forget to search using other names you used and former states of residence. Calhoun found more money in his wife’s name when he checked the Kansas Web site and used her maiden name. He also turned up savings accounts in the names of her four cousins. You should also search under the names of deceased relatives. You can file a claim as an heir.

Happy Hunting!

Gail

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The views expressed in this article are those of Ms. Buckner or the individual commentator. You should consult your own financial adviser for advice regarding your particular financial circumstances. This article is for information only and is not an offer of the sale of any mutual fund or other investment.