Q. I received a letter from a company offering to help me recover unclaimed money that a state is holding and that may be mine. They want me to pay a fee for the service. Should I pay?
A. Checking out a claim to lost funds may make sense: There is about $15 billion being held by the states in forgotten or abandoned bank accounts, uncollected security deposits, refund checks and life insurance proceeds.
But paying for such a service isn't smart, according to consumer advocates. The information is available for free from state treasury offices, which can and do use the money until is is claimed. There is no statue of limitations on reclaiming such funds.
Two Web sites, www.missingmoney.com and www.unclaimed.org, offer ways to conduct online searches.The www.missingmoney.com site, run by National Abandoned Property Processing Corp., has a multistate search engine and is certified by the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators, a government group representing all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The trade group runs www.unclaimed.org, which provides links to individual states' programs.
"There is no reason to pay when these web sites are available," said Jeremy Katz, senior vice president of the National Abandoned Property Processing Corp., which helps states collect unclaimed assets and also runs the missingmoney site.
The consumer fee paid to an asset recovery company could be wasted because there may not be any money. And even if there is money, some recovery companies only provide people with instructions on how to retrieve their money -- and don't do it for them.
"You can pay money and get nothing back in return," said Holly Cherico, spokeswoman for the Better Business Bureaus.
Cherico said consumers should investigate asset recovery companies to make sure they are legitimate before providing them with personal information, such as a social security number or credit card information.
The claims process varies from state to state, but all require proof that you are the rightful owner of the assets. Claiming large assets or money that belonged to a relative can be more complicated but the web sites offer information, instructions and phone numbers to help with the process.
The president of Asset Recovery Bureau believes his company does provide a service even though people can find out the information he provides for free.
"In most cases people don't even know the assets are out there," said Chris Kropac. "We're alerting them."
Kropac says his company only contacts people who it has found are likely to have funds awaiting them, and provides refunds to those who don't retrieve any money. The company provides an instruction kit to people so they know how to file a claim and what type of documents their state considered proof of identify and address.
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