You have probably heard stories about billions of dollars sitting out there waiting for their owners to retrieve them. You may have even received letters or e-mails offering to help you claim money that’s waiting for you. If you have, you’ve probably wondered if there’s any truth to these stories.
There really is money out there waiting for its owner, and there’s a lot of it. There are also many scam artists using the promise of unclaimed cash to try to bilk people out of money. If you have received direct communication offering to recover unclaimed assets from anyone other than a state government agency, it’s probably a scam. If they ask you to send money, it is certainly a scam. Don’t fall for it.
The Real Story
The National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators (NAUPA) defines unclaimed property or cash as “accounts in financial institutions and companies that have had no activity generated or contact with the owner for one year or a longer period.”
NAUPA also identifies the most common areas where this money exists:
Savings or checking accounts
Uncashed dividends or payroll checks
Unredeemed money orders or gift certificates (in some states)
Insurance payments or refunds and life insurance policies
Certificates of deposit
Utility security deposits
Mineral royalty payments
Contents of safe deposit boxes
The amounts involved are large. A 2013 report from NAUPA found that around $58 billion in cash and property is waiting for an owner to claim it. The majority of that money and property is held by states, as financial institutions are required to turn over these assets after a certain time, at which point it is considered “abandoned.” Most states and the IRS put little effort into finding the owners of these assets. If you are owed money, it’s up to you to seek it out.
Are unclaimed money programs real? Indeed, they are! In FY2015, government agencies returned $3.25 billion to its rightful owners and collected another $7.63 billion that is eligible for distribution. Despite some fraudulent activities and scam artists working the unclaimed cash system, there is a significant amount of money waiting to be claimed, and there are legitimate ways for individuals to find and claim any assets that are rightfully theirs.
Income Tax Refunds
Probably the most common place to find unclaimed cash is with the IRS. Billions of dollars in tax return money go unclaimed in the United States. If you have had money deducted from your paycheck but fail to file a return, you will not get a refund, even if you are owed one. That money just sits there, waiting for an owner for three years from the target filing date, at which point it becomes the property of the US Government. In early 2017 the IRS was holding over $1 billion in refunds for the 2013 tax year, with the median refund being $763.
If you have not filed a tax return for a year in which you worked, there’s a very good chance that the IRS owes you money. There’s no penalty for late filing if you don’t owe tax money, so there’s no reason not to file that paperwork and claim what’s yours.
How Do I Get My Money?
First, be careful. If you receive mail or e-mail offering to return cash to you, verify its authenticity thoroughly. If the communication claims to be from NAUPA, be extra careful. NAUPA states that the organization “does not notify owners of forgotten or missing funds.” Your best option to reclaim potential money is to use reputable sites and services.
File a late return with the IRS. You may have money with the IRS if you failed to file a return in a year in which you were owed a refund or if your refund was undeliverable, which usually happens when the address on your return is old or incorrect. You can get this money by filing a late return. The IRS does not issue penalties for late filings when you are owed money. Unfortunately, the IRS has no database to determine if you are owed money without an official file in place. If you may owe money, that is still no reason to avoid filing. Failing to file a tax return when you owe the IRS money could lead to serious legal consequences down the road, such as asset and income forfeiture. It’s best to file, even if there’s a possibility that you may have to pay.
Start searching! At the end of this article, you’ll find a list of searchable databases that will allow you to look for cash from multiple sources, including state databases, pensions, bank failure records, credit union failures, FHA Insurance refunds, and unpaid wages. These will get you started in your search.
You may want to consider calling former employers to see if you have any uncollected wages, pensions, or company-sponsored retirement accounts. Banks or other financial institutions that you have had accounts with could also have money held in your name.
There are also occasions where you may be owed money or property following the death of a relative. Inheritance money that goes uncollected is typically turned over to the state, so you may want to input the name of deceased relatives to see if they have uncollected cash or property. If you are the next closest living relative, you may be able to claim the inheritance.
Can I Trust Unclaimed Cash Programs?
Official programs, typically managed by state governments, are trustworthy, as are programs run by reputable private organizations. You should avoid third-party organizations or services that promise to collect this money for you. Although it may seem attractive to have a separate company doing the legwork for you, searching for and trying to collect unclaimed cash is something you should do on your own through the official state and federal organizations set up to help aid you in this process.
If you believe that you are owed significant amounts of cash or property, however, you may want to contact a lawyer who can help obtain this money, especially if the amounts are from uncollected wages, pensions, other retirement accounts, and especially inheritances.
You may not have cash waiting for you, but you won’t know unless you ask! If you think you may have assets waiting for you, your best bet is to follow official programs and systems and be skeptical of unsolicited offers. As always, if it sounds too good to be true, it’s probably not true!