I've moved around a lot. How can I find out if I'm one of those people to whom the government owes money but can't locate?

Whether it's a tax refund or a long-forgotten bank account, recovering forgotten funds typically isn't too hard provided you're willing to expend a bit of legwork. Nevertheless, as many as one in eight Americans have unclaimed financial assets out there somewhere, according to Justine McDermott, a spokeswoman for MissingMoney.com, a Web site that helps folks track down lost money. The total amount outstanding? An estimated $20 billion — mostly from bank accounts, rental deposits and uncashed wage checks.

While tracking down old bank accounts can be a bit tricky (depending on what state you live in), being reunited with a lost IRS check is a snap. That is, if the IRS really owes you money. Turns out, the IRS is pretty efficient in getting their checks to the appropriate party. Indeed, as of November 2000, less than one taxpayer in a 1,000 had an unclaimed tax refund. This is because the IRS can easily catch up with you through your 1040 filings (presumably with a current address) or via any change-of-address requests filed with the U.S. Postal Service. So check your records first and make sure you are indeed missing an expected tax refund, advises Michelle Lamishaw, a spokeswoman from the IRS. If you still think something's outstanding, call 800-829-1040. And to update your address, simply fill out Form 8822 or a U.S. Postal Service change-of-address request.

Of course, if you've really moved around a lot over the years, you just may have more money coming to you than an old IRS tax refund. In all 50 states, intangible personal property (i.e., property that can't be seen or touched or doesn't occupy space), such as an old bank account, security deposit or an uncashed check from an old employer, must be reported to the state, where it's held in custody by the state treasury. How much effort it will take to track that money down depends in part on what states you've called home. "Some states are more active than others, but all states make at least some effort to track down (the owner of) this money," says Art Jaeger, assistant director of the Consumer Federation of America.

An easy place to get started is at the free Web site MissingMoney.com, which allows you to search 27 states at once. If you're interested in a state not included in the database, the site provides direct links to state Web sites dedicated to unclaimed property. There's a lot not included in this database, such as IRS refunds, dormant Swiss bank accounts, refunds for HUD (Housing and Urban Development) mortgage insurance and U.S. savings bonds held in your name. But the site does provide links to other organizations that can help you out, should you think you might have this type of money coming your way. With some determination, "you can find what money might be owed to you without having to invest a lot of money," says Jaeger.

If you're the type who's willing to shell out a bit of cash in the name of convenience, visit Foundmoney.com. For a $20 membership fee, you'll be able to search Foundmoney.com's database, which includes information from the IRS and all the state databases. And through individual partnerships, Foundmoney.com also gives you access to information from the more obscure sources of income listed above. Since you don't have to live in a state to have an account there, paying for a complete search in all states, even ones you didn't reside in, will give you a better chance of turning up your unclaimed property, says Crystal Stevens, a spokeswoman for Foundmoney.com. Foundmoney.com also guarantees that if the John Q. Smith they have listed isn't you, you'll get a full refund.