How to Look for Your Share of More Than $40 Billion in Unclaimed Money
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"There was money out there, and it was mine. I clicked 'Pursue Claim.'"

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Found money can be more than a stash of fallen change beneath the couch, or a forgotten $20 in the pocket of your winter coat.

Think bigger. Much, much bigger.

In fact, there are billions of dollars out there, lost in the societal ether, just waiting for rightful owners to find them. Dormant bank accounts. Mislaid retirement funds. Forgotten rental security deposits. The states collectively hold more than $40 billion in unclaimed cash and property, and the IRS is sitting on $1.4 billion in unclaimed 2015 tax refunds.

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We ran our names to see what we’d find.

Grow deputy managing editor Ester Bloom discovered $50 in her own name, as well as 15 claims—most totaling around $50 each—for people in her immediate and extended family. Our senior video producer Stephen Parkhurst got a $100 finders fee from his mom for spotting a “substantial” claim under a deceased relative’s name. At our sister sites, CNBC Make It reporter Kathleen Elkins had a $50 claim owed to her by Disney, while CNBC reporter Jessica Dickler had a little more than $100 in the form of a remainder check from a former employer. And Grow writer Myelle Lansat found a mystery claim for a to-be-determined asset that she is still investigating.

I searched, too, with bittersweet results. More on that in a minute. First, here’s a fast three-step process to see if you have unclaimed cash.

How to Find Unclaimed Money

  1. Start at Unclaimed.org and Missingmoney.com. The National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators (NAUPA), a coalition of state administrators, runs those sites to help people conduct a state-by-state search for unclaimed funds and property.

  1. Then check the databases for each state where you’ve lived. Type in your name and sort through the results. (Don’t forget to try variations like your maiden name, or just a first initial.) Spotted a likely claim? The process for pursuing it varies from state to state and case by case.

  1. Finally, expand your search to other government databases such as those run by the Department of Veterans Affairs, IRS, Department of Labor, or even the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC).

My Search for Unclaimed Funds

I, like most people, find the phrase “free money” hard to ignore.

I started by visiting Unclaimed.org, and clicked on Washington, where I’ve spent much of my adult life. NAUPA sent me to a page run by the Washington State Department of Revenue, where I was prompted to enter my name and run the search.

Voilà—four entries appeared. Three of them were busts; variations of my name, attached to cities in which I never lived. But the fourth appeared to be a match—it contained the correct middle initial, and was listed in a city where I had lived for nearly 10 years. When I clicked on the entry, my full name, my former address, and a claim number popped up.

And then, the information I was looking for: I was owed “$25-$50” by the local utility company.

Why? The description simply read “credit balance/accts rec,” which presumably means I overpaid my electric bill at some point. But I didn’t care—there was money out there, and it was mine.

I clicked “Pursue Claim.”

A Claim, Unclaimed

Navigating the processes for recovering my missing money proved much tougher than finding it.

For the state to process my claim, I needed to provide proof that I am, in fact, the person whose name is listed on the claim, and documentation that I actually live or lived at the address in question.

The first was easy: I could simply send in a scan or photo of my driver’s license. But finding proof I’d lived at my former address? That was tricky, as I hadn’t lived there in several years. I didn’t have a copy of my lease, or any mail bearing my name and old address.

And, unfortunately, tracking documentation down proved to be my undoing.

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I called up my old building’s leasing office to see if they could help. The good news: They could get me a document proving I had lived there. The bad news: I would have to go there in person, with photo identification. Seeing as how I now live a cross-country flight away, that wasn’t going to happen.

“You can try calling the utility company,” the leasing agent told me. “They might be able to send you some sort of record, and if you can forward that to us, I might be able to talk my boss into releasing a copy of your lease.”

“Of course, I’ll try that,” I replied, crestfallen. I was slowly coming to terms with the fact that I probably wasn’t going to see my $25-$50 after all.

Of course, I tried to call the utility company, which gave me the runaround for about 40 minutes and then told me that they couldn’t help me either unless—you guessed it—I could provide proof that I lived at my old address.

At this point, I had to decide whether $25-$50 was worth any more of my time. Given that, at best, I could afford to buy a few dozen AriZona Arnold Palmer beverages, I needed to let it go.

But where I failed, others have and are succeeding. For example, the Office of the New York State Comptroller claims that it has reunited people with more than $118 million so far this year, as of April 1.

As for what the average Joe may expect to find, a spokesman with New York’s State Comptroller’s office says that 70 percent of outstanding claims are under $100, but there are some in the millions of dollars.

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