Piles of moneyI don't believe in get-rich-quick schemes. Once I hit puberty, I dismissed the idea of searching for lost treasure as a waste of time. I refuse to play the lottery. I even gave up on the tooth fairy at the tender age of six ("she's imaginary," I told my parents, handing them the lost teeth with the jaded eyes of a second-grader). So when I started working on a story about finding lost money online, I shook my head at the computer. "Sure, money is just out there, waiting for me."

I started working through a list of sites to search for unclaimed assets. I started at MissingMoney.com where I searched the states I'd lived in over the past two decades; it could just be that I had a bank account I hadn't quite settled out or a pay stub from some long-forgotten waitress job. Virginia (where I went to college and worked after business school) turned up nothing; so did Pennsylvania (business school); North Carolina (my first real job as an investment banker) and New York (Wall Street and a few years sharing a condo with an ex-boyfriend, who absolutely would not forward my mail). Many states have proprietary unclaimed cash sites and do not submit their data to MissingMoney.com or its partner site, Unclaimed.org, including my residence for the last nine years, Oregon. While I was searching Oregon's site, I hit pay dirt.My first success was a listing for "refunds due" at one of my old office addresses. Even though I have a common name, it was a small office and I know it had to be me. Sadly, the amounts are listed as "under/over $50" in Oregon (in most states, it is under/over $100), and this one was under. Could it be $7.50? $49.99? I called the state.

The answer was, of course, can't say. State and government officials won't give any information out beyond what's listed on the various websites, the better to keep would-be swindlers away. There is a lot I have to do to prove my identity, including filling out the "Unclaimed Property Inquiry Form" that the online search will create for you if you assert to be the Sarah Gilbert (or whomever) named. You must include a copy of your driver's license, Social Security card and (here's the kicker) proof you lived at the address in question. "If you know, send a copy of something that proves your connection to that asset; for instance, for a checking or savings account, send a copy of that bank statement." For all I know, it could be a refund for a printer I purchased on behalf of the company, a receipt I probably don't have.

What I do have, thanks to my tendency to keep far too many things in the way of receipts, pay stubs and old bills, are plenty of documents with my name and address at the old job. I asked the woman at the State of Oregon -- if I have no idea what it might be, how could I send the documents? Can my claim be processed without them?

"Yes, but it is a lot easier with the documents," she said. It will speed up matching me to the unclaimed asset, and satisfying whoever is weakly "looking" for me that I'm the rightful owner of the $4.95 or $36.72 or whatever. I wondered, if indeed I'm able to get certified as the Sarah Gilbert in question, then what?

A response to my inquiry, she said, will take 30 to 90 days; after that, the check will be in my hands "in a couple of weeks at most." A long time for those of us used to Paypal and direct deposits; not too long for those of us who remember waiting for a tax refund a dozen years ago.

Emboldened, I entered my husband's name into the search box. I started in Texas, where he lived for a few years before we were married. Lots of folks by his first initial and last name; no addresses I recognized. OK. Oregon. I found a few listings for "John Hanson" (his name is Jonathan); again, unfamiliar address. It can't hurt to try "Hansen," I thought, and sure enough: an over-$100 listing at an address he'd shared with a friend 10 or 12 years ago. "Wages/salary/payroll," the "type" box read.

Could it be several hundred dollars? Is he enough of a hoarder to still have a document listing that address? I'll be digging through the oldest file boxes this weekend to find out the answer to the second question. For the first, you'll have to wait with me as I get the documents notarized, and then send them to a little office somewhere in Salem, Ore. In the meantime, here's where you can look for unclaimed money, and what to remember as you search.
  • Unclaimed.org and Missing Money.com. These websites both do the same thing in slightly different formats; search throughout the states whose data is offered up to them, and send you to individual state sites who aren't. They're both free, and you should remember to search under a variety of spellings of your name. They'll turn up first initials matching yours (a few dozen "J Hansons" matched my searches); but they won't turn up misspelled names ("John," "Johnathan" and "Jonathon" are all possible variations on my husband's first name). I remember once I got mail for a "Sarha Gilbergs." I guess it can't hurt to look.
  • IRS.gov "Where's My Refund?" This one is almost always included in lists like this, although it's something of a different category; you have to know how much is supposed to be coming to you to look it up. Surprises, not so much. If you've filed taxes and are expecting a refund, that's great (and you'll get a result as long as you know what you claimed, even if you calculated all wrong). But you have to know that amount, as well as your Social Security number (if you're filing jointly, the Social Security number of the first individual listed on the return) and filing status. For a number of reasons like this, I keep a copy of my most recent tax return in the front of my "important documents" file.
  • Pension benefits owed. Not many of us are sitting at our computers wondering if there are any pensions owed us; after all, pension benefits are in decline and if you're getting them, you probably are working hard to keep them. Even for common names like mine and my husband's, there are only a few unclaimed pensions nationwide. And if you're the inheritor of a deceased pension participant, you'll likely get only a small fraction of the original benefit; they're meant for the living. Either way, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation hosts a website at PBGC.gov where you can see if perhaps there's a little pension money coming your way.
  • Savings bond interest payments. Savings bonds are similarly not so modern. If you think you have some payments you should be receiving, visit the TreasuryDirect website operated by the U.S. Department of the Treasury. All you need is your Social Security number to see if you have some payments coming your way.
  • FDIC-managed accounts from 1989 to 1993. Once banks are closed by the FDIC, the accounts go into its receivership and the Federal agency will pay depositors for the insured amount. Why such a weird time period? In June 1993, the laws changed, mandating that unclaimed funds go back to the FDIC after 18 months, which in turn hands them back to the states. So, if your bank closed in 1995 and the FDIC couldn't find you, go back to the first bullet point.
  • Think about what you could have missed. Refunds (taxes, insurance, utility and rental property security deposits, overpayments), wages (last checks and bonuses) and old checking or savings accounts seem to be the most common unclaimed property. If you've been at one job, one bank or one address for all of your adult life -- especially if you've never changed your name -- these are unlikely. It's the transients who leave things behind (finally, my wanderlust is good for something).
  • Do you have deceased parents or grandparents? If you had close relatives whose estates were somewhat large or opaquely settled, you could be heir to any number of arcane assets, like annuities, mineral royalty payments, pensions or old bank accounts. Most of these will be found through the states where your relatives lived and worked, through websites like MissingMoney.com or one of the state sites. You'll have to have papers, such as a death certificate, will or probate documents, in addition to whatever papers of identity and proof are required (in other words, this could be hard).
  • Remember the opportunity cost of your time. With many pursuits, I value the endeavor just as much as I might a good hour's work. But with paperwork and searching for arcane documents in my messy file cabinets and boxes? I'd rather be writing (or washing dishes, honestly), thank you. If it's less than $50 and you think it's going to be a huge fishing expedition through stacks of paper, abandon it to the vicissitudes of your interesting and busy life, and be grateful you don't owe money.
Tomorrow, when I start gathering paperwork for taxes, I'll take a look for my husband's 2001 bills and employment paperwork, and head over to the bank for some notarizing. And in 30 to 90 days (plus two weeks), I'll let you know what happened.

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