This week, Gail explains how to look for property that’s waiting to be claimed

Hi Gail —

My family was displaced by Hurricane Katrina. It took several weeks for us to get back to our house, which, as you can imagine, was in pretty bad shape. We’re luckier than many, however, because we’re all fine and much of the damage is on the exterior. The insurance company check has arrived and we are starting the repair process.

Every cent we have is going into fixing up our house, so I was wondering if you could help us with something: we should have gotten a refund on our income tax, but so far it hasn’t arrived. Or maybe they tried to deliver it around the time of the hurricane, but the mailbox was gone — and so were we.

Thanks for your help,

The McM's

Dear McM Family —

I am sorry about the damages inflicted upon you by Katrina, but so happy you all survived this ordeal.

The good news is that getting your hands on your tax refund may be simpler than you might think. Clearly, you have access to a computer since you contacted me via email. The first thing you should do is log on to the I.R.S. Web site: http://www.irs.gov . Once there, click on the “Where’s My Refund?” link. You have to answer some basic questions such as your filing status, Social Security number, and so forth.

The Internal Revenue Service is holding 84,290 (!) tax refund checks that were returned as undeliverable this year. The primary reason is that the individual entitled to the check moved and did not give the I.R.S. or Post Office a forwarding address. But there’s a good chance some of the folks displaced by Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, or Wilma are also in this group.

This isn’t chicken feed. We’re talking about a total of $73 million in undelivered refunds! That’s an average of $871 per taxpayer. According to the I.R.S., some people have more than one check waiting for them because they didn’t receive their refunds from previous years, either.

(Hey, maybe there’s a way to solve the Social Security shortfall after all…)

If you can’t locate your refund by using the internet, contact the I.R.S. There are two different toll-free phone numbers to call if you’re missing your tax refund, regardless whether it’s for 2004 or an earlier year:

Hurricane Katrina victims only: 1-866-562-5227

Everyone else: 1-800-829-1040

Whether or not you’re missing your tax refund, if you moved this year, be sure to let the I.R.S. know. All you have to do is file Form 8822, which you can download or request by phone at 1-800-TAX-FORM.

A word of caution: getting the refund you’re entitled to is free. It’s your money. Believe it or not the government wants you to have it. Don’t let some con artist convince you to pay them a “finder’s fee.” That’s a rip-off.

More “Free” Money

On the subject of getting what’s rightfully yours, as the year winds down it’s a good idea to check whether there are other government entities holding money or other assets in your name. After all, who couldn’t use a little extra cash as the holidays approach?

As I wrote about earlier this year, state coffers are awash in unclaimed property- money left in a savings account, that deposit you had to pay the utility company, life insurance proceeds, that rare coin collection Uncle Ernie left you in his will (What? You didn’t know you even had an Uncle Ernie!), and so forth.

By law, companies have to turn over these assets to the state if they are unable to locate the recipient. The problem, of course, is you probably don’t even know they’re looking for you.

If you enter “unclaimed property” into your Internet search engine, you’ll find a boatload of websites willing to help you locate these assets… for a fee, of course. In some cases this is pretty steep: New York State permits these companies to charge as much as 15 percent of the value of the property. In Wisconsin, Hawaii, and Florida, so-called “heir finders” can take as much as 20 percent. Oklahoma allows them to take 25 percent cut, but as the state’s Unclaimed Property Division told me, if Oklahoma is holding assets in your name, you can find out about it “through our office absolutely free.”

Why don’t the states try to find you themselves? Time, money, and, quite frankly, it’s not in their best interest.

You see, while that money sits in the bank account for the state’s Unclaimed Property Department it’s earning interest, which is a major source of income for the state! New York says its holding “billions” of dollars in unclaimed assets. Do the math!

I learned this first-hand. Ten months ago I discovered that the state of California was holding some small amounts of money in my name. In once case I hadn’t completely closed out a bank account. Have a seen the money? Not a chance!

According to California’s unclaimed property forms, before I can claim this money I have to prove that I am the rightful owner by either producing my bank passbook, or a statement, or a utility bill from that address… 25 years ago! Let’s see, I’ve lived in four different states and at 10 different addresses since then. How many of us hang on to those kinds of records for decades?!

So the state of California has this neatly sewed up. It will continue to earn interst on money that is rightfully mine. But it’s conscience is clear because it is giving me the “opportunity” to claim it, even though the standards for doing so are impossible to meet. Ka-ching.

On the other hand, Puerto Rico has some of the most enlightened regulations. If you collect property being held by Puerto Rico, by law you will receive 4 percent interest “or the rate established” for the period the government had possession of it.

So where should you start? Head to http://www.nupn.com , the Web site of the National Unclaimed Property Network. The reason I like this site is that it’s free. It’s run by Jim Calhoun, a retired Delta pilot (if you want to hear horror stories about money that you’re owed but will never see, just get a pilot talking about his/her pension — but that’s a story for another day). Calhoun started the website after his wife was contacted by a firm that had found money in her name and wanted a fee for helping her claim it. Calhoun eventually tracked it down himself, but realized how difficult this would be for the average person.

The site has a list helpful hints, explanations of different terms, and — just a warning — quite a number of ads. As Calhoun explains, they pay the cost of maintaining the site.

To get to the free pages where you can launch your own search, stick to the links near the top of the homepage. Head to “States” first. Then click on every state you’ve ever lived in. You’ll be directly connected to each state’s unclaimed property page. You’ll want to search under your maiden as well as your married name; use your complete first name as well as just your initial. The point is, try to think of as many different ways as possible that your name could have been entered into the system.

Some- but not all- states have joined the “National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators.” On its Web site, http://www.naupa.org , you’ll find a map of the United States. Click on the state you want to check and you’ll be connected to the website for the department of unclaimed assets.

Once you scour the states where you’ve lived and/or worked, head back to www.nupn.com and click on the “Federal” and “Insurance” links to see if you might have money being held by the I.R.S., Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation, or an insurance company.

All in all, this should take you a couple of hours. You might also want to check under names of relatives and your spouse. Let me know what you find!

Hope this helps,

Gail

If you have a question for Gail Buckner and the Your $ Matters column, send them to yourmoneymatters@gmail.com , along with your name and phone number.