If you’ve ever put on a jacket you haven’t worn in a few weeks and discovered a $10 bill in the pocket, you can probably remember the thrill you felt at the discovery. It’s not that $10 is such a huge amount of money; what made it so special was the way it seemed to come into your hands by magic. You didn’t have to work an extra shift or hold a yard sale to get it – it just appeared.
Now imagine how it would feel to discover hundreds or even thousands of dollars that you didn’t know you had.
If you think that’s impossible, think again. According to the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators (NAUPA), state governments returned over $3 billion worth of lost and unclaimed funds to their rightful owners in the 2015 fiscal year alone. That includes money from old bank accounts, insurance claims, security deposits, and more.
And that’s just the money sitting in state treasuries. It doesn’t account for other sources of missing money that could belong to you, such as tax refunds, savings bonds, or settlements from class-action lawsuits.
The bottom line is that there’s a lot of unclaimed money out there, and some of it could have your name on it. Here’s what you need to know about the ways money can slip through the cracks in the financial system, and how to hunt it down and claim it.
1. Unclaimed Funds
Probably the biggest source of missing money is unclaimed funds. This catchall category refers to all money and other assets in accounts whose owners can’t be found.
Funds can go unclaimed for a variety of reasons. One of the most common is people moving to a new home and forgetting to change the address on their accounts. The problem can also happen at the other end when a company goes out of business and fails to notify its customers. The money left in their accounts goes into legal limbo, and the owners can’t easily figure out how to retrieve it.
According to NAUPA, money officially becomes unclaimed funds when the company that holds the account has had no contact of any kind with the owner for at least a year. At this point, the money gets turned over to state governments to hold onto until the owners, or their heirs, lay claim to it.
Types of Unclaimed Funds
Money belonging to you can make its way into your state’s unclaimed funds pool from many different sources. These include:
- Bank and Investment Accounts. Maybe you have an old, unused bank or investment account you never bothered to close. Even if the company has since gone out of business, the money is still technically yours and is stashed in a fund somewhere waiting to be claimed. You might also have left some valuable property sitting in a safe deposit box that you no longer use.
- Insurance Policies. There may be money owing to you from an insurance payout you never collected. You could also be due some money from a life insurance policy on which you were a beneficiary.
- Security Deposits. Are you sure you collected the security deposit on your old apartment when you moved out? How about the initial deposit paid on your utility account? If you didn’t, that money is yours to claim.
- Unpaid Wages. Wages can go unpaid for various reasons. Sometimes it’s because an employer is trying to stiff you, but in other cases, it’s a simple mistake, such as a paycheck being lost in the mail or sent to the wrong address. This can happen when you’ve just changed jobs and your employer has to mail your final paycheck instead of handing it to you at the office.
- Pension Plans. Pension benefits often go unclaimed when a company closes its plan or goes out of business. However, that doesn’t mean the money has disappeared. The government is holding on to the funds, waiting to restore them to their rightful owners.
- Tax Refunds. According to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), every year, millions of dollars in tax refunds go unclaimed because people fail to file their tax returns. If you neglected to submit a tax return at any time within the past three years, there’s still time to file it now and collect your refund. Tax refunds can also go missing because the checks were sent to the wrong address. You can fix this problem by making sure the address the IRS has for you is up to date.
- FHA Mortgages. If you’ve ever had an FHA mortgage loan, you could have a refund coming to you from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). It could include a portion of the mortgage insurance premium you paid, a share of any excess earnings from the Mutual Mortgage Insurance Fund, or both.
How to Find Unclaimed Funds
Just like that $10 in your jacket pocket, unclaimed funds in your name are already legally yours. In most cases, your state government will hold on to the money until you claim it and will charge you, at most, a nominal handling fee for the paperwork. However, if funds have been sitting unclaimed for a very long time, cash-strapped state governments occasionally add the money to their budgets.
To make sure this doesn’t happen to any of your missing money, act now to track those funds down. Several websites can help you find and claim various types of missing money, including:
- MissingMoney.com. This site is a database of unclaimed property records from all but nine U.S. states, as well as one Canadian province. You can find information here about a variety of unclaimed funds, including bank accounts, safe deposit boxes, uncashed checks, insurance funds, trust funds, and utility deposits. It’s free to search, and you can claim any funds you find directly through the site.
- Unclaimed.org. If your state or province doesn’t participate in MissingMoney.com, try Unclaimed.org. This site, run by NAUPA, provides information about how to contact your state in search of unclaimed funds. It’s worth doing a search not only for the state you live in now, but also for any states where you’ve lived in the past. Also, if you’ve changed your name – for instance, after getting married – be sure to check listings for your old name as well.
- FDIC Unclaimed Funds. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) maintains a list on its site of unclaimed insured deposits from banks and other firms that have closed down. If you find funds in your name, you can use the site to print out a form to claim them. A similar site for the National Credit Union Administration can help you find unclaimed deposits from a credit union.
- SEC Information for Harmed Investors. The website of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has information about cases in which a company owes its investors money. Search the site to find out whether any of these cases have involved companies you deal with and how to recover your money.
- VA Unclaimed Funds Search. You can search the website of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to find unclaimed funds from certain types of VA life insurance policies. That includes funds owed to current and former policyholders and their beneficiaries. Check the site to see which types of policies it includes.
- WHD “WOW” Search. If you think a current or former employer could owe you back pay, check this database from the Wage and Hour Division (WHD) at the U.S. Department of Labor. The WHD is responsible for enforcing some of the nation’s labor laws, and when it finds a violation, it can often recover the unpaid wages for employees to claim. If the agency finds any back wages in your name, it will attempt to contact you; if it can’t find you, it will continue to hold the funds for you for three years. To search the site, enter your employer’s name and click “WOW Search” (short for “workers owed wages”).
- PBGC Unclaimed Plans Search. This site is run by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC), a U.S. government agency. It can help you find and collect any unclaimed pension money from a company that went out of business or ended its defined pension plan. You can search the site using your own name or the name of the company.
- IRS Filing for Individuals. On this page of the IRS website, you can find the forms you need to file an overdue tax return from within the past three years. You can also use the “Where’s My Refund?” page to check on the status of a refund from a tax return you’ve filed. If you’ve moved recently, you can download a Change of Address form to notify the IRS of your new address and make sure your refund check will reach you.
- HUD Refund Database. If you think you could be eligible for a refund from HUD, check this site to find out. You can search by either your FHA case number or your last name.
Unclaimed Funds Scams
All of the sites listed above belong to the U.S. government or an organization that works with the government, such as NAUPA. These sites will never charge you anything to search for missing property. And, if you find any funds in your name, you shouldn’t have to pay more than a minimal handling fee to claim them.
There are other services out there that offer to find and send you unclaimed money for a fee. These organizations take advantage of state freedom of information acts to search for the names of people who have money owed to them, then contact these people and offer to track down their missing money in exchange for, say, 10% of the total. These are legitimate businesses, known as “finders” or “locators,” that find real lost property. There’s no good reason to pay them since they’re not doing anything you couldn’t do yourself, but they’re not breaking any laws.
An even bigger problem is outright scammers – people who contact you claiming to be government employees and offer to send you your unclaimed funds for a fee. These scammers may reach out to you by email, phone, or snail mail. One particularly clever scam used letters sent out on fake NAUPA letterhead that reproduced real information taken directly from the NAUPA website before requesting a payment of $2,250 to cover the cost of “federal stamps” needed to claim a $450,000 lottery prize. The letter, which you can see on NAUPA’s site, even has a postscript warning recipients to “stay alert for sweepstakes scams.”
Other unclaimed property scams don’t ask for money up front. Instead, they try to get you to hand over your personal information, such as your banking details, credit card number, or Social Security Number (SSN). Once the scammers get their hands on this information, they use it for identity theft.
To avoid falling victim to an unclaimed funds scam, keep these points in mind:
- Be Wary of Phone Calls. Real government agencies will never call you about unclaimed money or assets. In fact, most of them are forbidden by law to contact you by phone.
- Use Only Legitimate Sites. When searching for unclaimed funds, stick to the sites listed above. If you get a recommendation for a different site, check USA.gov and NAUPA to see if it’s on their lists of legitimate search sites.
- Don’t Pay Up. Anyone who asks for a fee up front to find your unclaimed property is a scammer. A company that says it will charge you only if it finds property in your name is probably a legitimate locator, but there’s no good reason to pay for its services.
- Be Cautious With Your Personal Info. A company that wants your SSN or other personal info up front, before it will even give you any details about your unclaimed funds, is almost surely a scam. However, some state governments do need your SSN to process a claim, so a request for it isn’t always bogus. To be on the safe side, contact your state’s unclaimed property office through Unclaimed.org and make sure the agency you’re dealing with is legit.
2. Savings Bonds
If you ever got a savings bond as a birthday present when you were a kid, you probably weren’t too thrilled about it at the time. Chances are, you tossed the certificate in a drawer and forgot all about it.
Well, by now, that boring bond has probably matured into a source of cash you can collect. If you still have the paper certificate, you can use the calculator at TreasuryDirect to figure out how much your bond is worth. The site also has instructions on how to cash in your bonds online or at a bank.
If your original paper bond has been lost or stolen, you still have a chance of recovering the funds. Go to the “Products in Depth” page on TreasuryDirect, click on the type of bond you had, and check out the instructions for replacing or reissuing it. Unfortunately, you’ll only be able to do this if you know the value, issue date, and bond number; the site can’t help you search for bonds whose details you don’t remember.
3. Class-Action Lawsuits
It’s a fact of life: Sometimes products and services just don’t work the way you expect them to. You have to take your new car back to the dealer to replace a defective airbag. Your new windows leak, and the rain gets in and ruins your carpet. And, of course, you have to mute your phone most of the time because you get so many robocalls.
If something like this happens to you, your first response is probably to send a letter of complaint to the company. If that doesn’t work, maybe you take it a step further and file a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. If that still doesn’t get you satisfaction, you probably just shrug your shoulders and figure there’s nothing else to be done.
However, that’s not quite true. If a company has caused problems for enough consumers, it can end up facing a class-action lawsuit – one giant suit on behalf of all the people who suffered as a result of its products or services. And if you’re one of those people, you’re entitled to a share of any settlement in the case, even if you didn’t know about the lawsuit when it was filed.
Types of Class-Action Lawsuits
A company can face a class-action lawsuit over a product that harms people or over various types of fraud or unethical conduct. According to LawInfo, the most common types of class-action suits involve:
- Defective Products. Many types of products, such as cars, drugs, and medical devices, can cause serious harm to a lot of people if they don’t work correctly. That’s why class-action lawsuits often center around defective products. For example, LawInfo describes a 2010 lawsuit against Toyota over cars that allegedly accelerated when no one was stepping on the gas. If the plaintiffs win a case like this, they can receive damages based on the injuries they suffered, and the defendant has to fix the product so it can’t harm anyone in the future.
- Finance. Banks and other financial companies are often involved in class-action lawsuits over charges that they cheated their customers in some way. For instance, in 2018, Wells Fargo paid a $480 million settlement to shareholders over charges that its employees created millions of unauthorized accounts in their clients’ names, according to the Los Angeles Times. Financial companies can also face lawsuits over predatory lending, or unfair and deceptive practices that hurt borrowers.
- Employment. Groups of employees can bring a class-action suit against an employer over issues like failure to pay minimum wage, sexual harassment, discrimination, and dangerous work conditions. In 2014, Morgan Stanley paid $4.2 million to settle a case charging that it unfairly denied overtime pay to more than 800 employees, according to Reuters.
- Civil Rights. Some class-action lawsuits charge that a company or other organization violated the civil rights of a large group of people. One of the best-known cases in American legal history, Brown v. Board of Education, was a class-action lawsuit over school segregation. More recently, there have been class-action suits over such issues as sex discrimination at large companies, racial profiling by police departments, and the treatment of people with disabilities.
- Environment. Environmental problems are a common subject for class-action suits because they generally harm large groups of people, rather than specific individuals. For instance, a group of property owners could sue a company because it caused pollution that lowered their property values. The website Flint Water Class Action documents the progress of an ongoing lawsuit on behalf of the people of Flint, Michigan over lead contamination in their municipal water supply.
Finding Money From Class-Action Lawsuits
Any money paid out in a class-action lawsuit gets split among all the injured parties. The way it’s shared varies from case to case. Sometimes each person gets a fixed amount, sometimes each person gets a percentage of the total, and sometimes the amount you get depends on how much harm you’ve suffered. Thus, your share in a class-action lawsuit could be anywhere from under a dollar to a few hundred dollars.
By law, the lawyers for the plaintiff in a class-action suit must try to contact everyone who could be affected by the decision. They can put ads on TV or in newspapers, post fliers, and send out notices by mail.
However, they can’t always reach everyone who’s entitled to a share of the settlement, so it pays to check on your own and look for lawsuits you could be a party to. There are several websites you can search to look for current cases, including:
- Consumer Action. The Class Action Database on this site lists notable class-action lawsuits that are open to claims, pending, and closed. You can search the listing for a particular company name or location, but there’s no easy way to find cases that could affect you personally.
- ClassAction.org. This site provides news and information about class-action lawsuits and settlements. You can browse the list of lawsuits by type, search for specific companies, and report problems that you think could be the basis for a class-action suit. There’s also a newsletter you can sign up for to be notified of new class-action lawsuits and rebates.
- Class Action Rebates. This site focuses specifically on helping people claim their share of settlements in lawsuits related to defective products. It provides a list of products, the estimated amount of each payout, and whether proof of purchase is needed. This information helps you decide whether it’s worth your while to file a claim. If it is, you can simply click a link to fill out and submit an online claim form. You can expect a check within two weeks after the claims period ends.
- Class Action, Inc. Unlike other sites, this one can help you find specific class-action lawsuits you could be a party to. Clarence, the site’s “robot bear,” asks a series of questions to help you search for claims related to employment, purchases, phone calls, and automobiles. If the site finds money owing to you, it will file the paperwork for you, collect 5% of the settlement as its fee, and deliver the rest to you.
Even if you search every one of the sites listed here, there’s no guarantee that you’ll find missing money in your name. If you’re the kind of person who always stays on top of your finances, chances are you won’t find any. You’ve probably remembered to change your address every time you move, closed all your old bank accounts, filed your taxes on time every year, and followed up on missed paychecks or closed pension funds.
However, even if you think it’s unlikely there’s any missing money in your name, it can’t hurt to check. After all, even the most efficient person can lose track of things once in a while. And even if you read the news every day, you could still miss hearing a story about a class-action suit that affects you. I like to think of myself as pretty organized, but when I checked out Class Action, Inc., Clarence the robot bear found me a couple of claims in cases I didn’t know about.
To put it another way, searching for missing money is kind of like checking the pockets of your jacket whenever you put it on. Most likely, there won’t be a forgotten $10 bill lurking in there. But if there is, wouldn’t you like to know about it?
Have you ever discovered money you didn’t know you had? How did you find it?