Con Watch: You May Have Unclaimed Property, but Beware of Scammers

A lot of checks from old 401(k)s, banks, utilities, or insurance companies never find their way back to the owners. It’s easy to find and claim this money, but it’s also easy for scammers to take you for a ride.


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Steve Weisman is a lawyer, college professor, author, and one of the country’s leading experts in cybersecurity, identity theft, and scams. See Steve’s other Con Watch articles.

Various state and federal agencies hold $24 billion of unclaimed money that has been turned over by banks, utilities, insurance companies, brokerages, and others. These agencies hold the money until the rightful owner claims them. State laws require financial institutions, such as banks, to turn over money from inactive accounts. And companies and institutions turn over accounts after three to five years of inactivity. Thousands of people have no idea that they may have checks waiting for them, if only they would claim it.

Unfortunately, crooks will leverage people’s unawareness of unclaimed property to scam them.  Often posing as government employees, they will offer to help them claim large amounts of abandoned property.  All the victim is required to do is to provide their Social Security number and, sometimes, pay a small fee by credit card.  Anyone providing this personal information ends up becoming a victim of identity theft and may also have their credit card compromised. The actual agencies holding abandoned property don’t reach out in this fashion.

You also may receive a notice informing you that, for a fee, a company will assist you in locating unclaimed property that belongs to you. These companies can’t do anything you could easily do yourself to claim your abandoned property, but they charge fees of as much as 15 percent of the total value of the property to “help” you.  In some instances, their letter may appear to come from the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators, which is a legitimate organization, but not one that initiates communications to individuals whose funds they are holding.

The best place to find a helping hand in locating and getting back your abandoned property is at the end of your own arm. Go to the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators to find your own state’s agency that deals with abandoned property and take the steps necessary to claim your assets at no cost to you. Other useful websites for locating money that you may be owed include the IRS, where you can find tax refund money, and the Pension Benefits Guaranty Corporation, a federal agency that holds unclaimed pension funds. You can also go to the Department of Labor where you can find if you are owed back wages from your employer and pensions from former employers. Finally, the federal government has a great website with links for unpaid wages, unclaimed VA life insurance funds, tax refunds, matured but uncashed savings bonds, and more. All of these are easy and free to use.

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