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Today's treasure hunter doesn't need a secret map or shovel to uncover wealth

All you need is a computer for searching government databases

By Eileen Ambrose, The Baltimore Sun

July 10, 2011

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Years ago, before we were married and moved to Maryland, my husband opened a checking account in Indiana and had the statements mailed to his office there.

The account wasn't forgotten, just ignored. That wasn't a problem until his employer moved and the statements started bouncing back to the bank. Eventually, the account was turned over to the Indiana attorney general, who added it to a list of unclaimed property — where it was recently spotted by a family acquaintance.

We put in a claim. Our prize: $1,287.89. It was our money all along, but it feels like we won the lottery.

Since then, I've gone on a treasure hunt, checking every state we have lived in for long-lost money. Such digging is fast and easy because states and the federal government post information online about inactive bank accounts, forgotten savings bonds and lost pensions.

You can do your own search, too. All the information is free, so there's no reason to fall for schemes that offer to find money for you for a fee. And you might find that treasure hunting online is fun — and slightly addictive. For instance, just because I could, I checked to see if there was money waiting for me in Australia and New Zealand — even though I've never been there.

The eagle-eye who spotted our account is Thomas Leland, a financial adviser in Mishawaka, Ind., who periodically searches Indiana's unclaimed property database for names of those he knows.

He says he hits paydirt about every other month, with the largest find being more than $20,000 in uncashed royalty checks. Usually, people are glad to hear of found money, although some are embarrassed that they appear to be absent-minded, Leland says. Still, he adds, "No one ever says, 'Don't do it again.'"

To get you started on your hunt, here are some sites:

Unclaimed property The majority of states, including Maryland, post unclaimed property information at missingmoney.com, which is operated by ACS, a Xerox subsidiary, and endorsed by the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators. You also can check a state's website for unclaimed property, which can include uncashed paychecks, stocks, bonds, insurance proceeds and the contents of safe-deposit boxes.

"I have seen the whole gamut, everything from a crocheted toilet paper roller, a woman's ashes to a Purple Heart," says Christine Feldmann, a spokeswoman for the Maryland comptroller's office.

Maryland has more than 875,000 unclaimed accounts worth around $950 million — about $1,085 per account. Each spring, the state publishes a list of new unclaimed funds in newspapers. For the 11 months ended in May, the state returned $34 million to 35,000 people, says Tamarra Eaton, manager of the state's unclaimed property.

Laws on abandoned property differ among states. Maryland requires businesses to turn the property over to the state after an account has been dormant for three years — although money orders and traveler's checks have a 15-year limit, Eaton says. Then the state tries to track down the owners.

Maryland doesn't have space to house all the contents of abandoned safe-deposit boxes indefinitely. So within a year of receiving items, the state gets them appraised and puts them up for auction on eBay. (Military medals — and human ashes — aren't sold.) Owners, if they ever come forward, will receive the auction proceeds.

Among items that are up for auction or will be soon: a $10,000 diamond necklace with matching earrings, a $500 Cartier gold ring, 85 gold coins worth as much as $1,500 apiece and an $800 gold coin commemorating President Ronald Reagan's inauguration.

Some states allow owners more time than others to stake a claim on unclaimed property. In Indiana, an item unclaimed after 25 years belongs to the state.

Maryland is more patient.

"This claim never disappears," Feldmann says. "The heirs or heirs' heirs have access to it forever."

Lost pensions The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. holds more than $265 million in unclaimed benefits due to more than 37,500 workers whose private pensions have been terminated. That includes 440 Marylanders, who are owed a total of $849,643 — an average of $1,931 per beneficiary.

Nationwide, unclaimed benefits range from a disappointing 12 cents to a $692,000 windfall. The average is $8,200. Benefits worth up to $5,000 are disbursed in a lump sum, according to PBGC spokesman Marc Hopkins. Anything over that is paid out in an annuity.

You can search your name, your employer or the state where a pension is based at pbgc.gov. For an example of what's available, the agency is holding benefits for several former employees of the defunct Haussner's Restaurant. You can file a benefit claim online or call 800-400-7242.

Maybe you have lost track of a 401(k) or traditional pension that's still up and running. For help in reconnecting, call the Employee Benefits Security Administration's participant assistance office at 866-444-3272.

Missing refunds Every year, the U.S. Postal Service returns a small percentage of tax refunds to the Internal Revenue Service as undeliverable, usually because the taxpayer moved. The IRS releases the names to media outlets each November. (Last year, the IRS tried to track down 1,670 Marylanders who were owed more than $2.1 million.)

"That money is earmarked," says Jim Dupree, the IRS spokesman in Baltimore. "We hold that until we find you or you find us."

If you haven't received your refund for 2010, check Where's My Refund? at irs.gov. Or call the IRS at 800-829-1040.

Mature savings bonds Depending on the series, savings bonds mature in 20 to 40 years. After that, they stop earning interest. As of the end of June, the amount of matured bonds totaled $16.2 billion, reports the Bureau of Public Debt.

Some people don't cash matured bonds because they're waiting for an emergency. Or they don't want to pay federal tax on the interest earned — a poor financial move, because they won't get their principal back until the bond is redeemed. But others have forgotten about the bonds a grandparent bought for them decades ago.

You can search online for matured bonds — Series E and certain others — issued in 1974 and later on the Treasury Hunt page of treasurydirect.gov. The site will ask for your contact information if it uncovers something, and a customer service representative will be in touch, says Joyce Harris, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Public Debt.

To redeem a bond that is lost, stolen or destroyed, fill out Form 1048, also available on the site.

Heirs, too, can redeem a bond if the original owner is deceased, but only "if they can prove they are the rightful owners," Harris says.

Holocaust claims The New York Banking Department helps Holocaust victims and their heirs to recover lost or stolen property. As of late last year, the department's Holocaust Claims Processing Office reported assisting in the return of 49 works of art and $154 million in other assets, such as bank deposits and insurance proceeds. Contact the office at claims.state.ny.us/index.htm or at 800-695-3318.

eileen.ambrose@baltsun.com