NEW YORK (CNNfn) - Look, "It's a Wonderful Life" is very touching and all, but it's still just a movie.|
In the real world you can't wait around for some apprentice angel named Clarence to show up and sort out your problems. And you probably shouldn't count on your friends and neighbors tramping into your living room on Christmas Eve with buckets of money.
But that doesn't mean you can't dance by the light of the moon. That pile of money could be waiting for you out in cyberspace and MissingMoney.com can help you find it.
The free Web site is dedicated to finding billions of dollars in unclaimed property, such as forgotten savings and checking accounts, securities dividends and payroll checks, and returning them to the rightful owners.
What's this got to do with you? Well, it's estimated that one out of eight Americans has unclaimed money somewhere, and since it launched in November 1999, the site has helped return more than 362,000 lost properties valued at more than $75 million.
Finding money always feels good and it is especially joyous during the holidays when your bills are piling up higher than a Minnesota snowdrift. So maybe you'll have your happy ending after all. And you won't have to jump off a bridge to get it.
Going through changes
In the course of human events, people die, marry and change their names, or just move on. During all that change, money in some form is sometimes overlooked and, with the passage of time, completely forgotten.
But it doesn't have to stay that way.
MissingMoney.com is managed by CheckFree (CKFR: Research, Estimates), a Norcross, Ga.-based electronic billing company, and is dedicated to the notion that "missing" need not mean "forever." It is the only Web search engine listing national unclaimed property records to be endorsed by the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators (NAUPA), an organization of state government officials.
Michael Meriton, president of MissingMoney.com, said the site's average claim is about $250, with the average user logging on for about 23 minutes.
"We're just shy of about 7 million listings and we're getting close to $2 billion in unclaimed property listed on the database," he said. "That's bigger than all the state lotteries put together."
And there's more where that came from. Experts reckon that state unclaimed-property offices have anywhere from $14 billion to $16 billion in assets, and others say that figure could go as high as $35 billion.
Then there's the federal government, which may have another $10 billion in unclaimed assets belonging to taxpayers, while private corporations may be holding an additional $25 billion.
Wanted: Property owners
In the past, states had to run newspaper ads, set up booths at shopping malls and state fairs, and post information on their own Web sites to connect people with their missing money.
MissingMoney.com works from a single database, with about 28 states and Washington, D.C., currently participating. The site is working with the remaining states to get them in on the action as well.
In addition to its own database, the Missing Money site has links to individual state Web sites, the Internal Revenue Service, U.S. Savings Bonds, Housing and Urban Development and other sites, such as Canadian Bank Accounts and Australia Unclaimed Property.
"The single largest unclaimed assets reported at the federal levels are U.S. savings bonds," Meriton said. "There are 17 million U.S. Savings Bonds that have matured but have not been claimed. The IRS issues $100 million to $150 million each year in refund checks that are not collected."
The database is updated monthly, so people who don't get hits the first time can register with the site and hope for better news down the line.
Businesses can also benefit from the site, Meriton said, as they merge with other companies, or close down certain branches.
NAUPA president Stephen Larson said MissingMoney.com differs from other unclaimed property sites in that, besides being endorsed by his organization, the site provides updated information without charging a fee to users.
"The Web site is very effective," he said. "It's the future in the present."
On the prowl
To get started, go to the site, enter your first and last name, hit "go" and wait to see if the search turns up any unclaimed property. If so, the site will list a brief description about the property. Select the item and fill out an online claim form.
You can either file the claim electronically — for the states that accept these submissions — or print out the form and mail it to the state officials, along with any other supporting documents.
Meriton suggested putting together a family tree before beginning your search. You may also want to include the names of friends, neighbors or co-workers to see if they've got money out there someplace.
"There's just such a staggering amount of money," he said.
Besides finding money, Meriton said people who have been out of touch for years are hooking up through the site.
"In some cases, people haven't talked to each other in 15 years," he said.
Mary Lou Lujan, a retired school administrator from Grants, N.M., said she found $1,000 by using MissingMoney.com. The money was from an insurance policy her mother had taken out in 1953.
"Once it was paid off, she just forgot about it, I guess," Lujan said. "She was very surprised."
After trying different family names, Lujan said she finally got a hit using her mother's name.
"It was just a curiosity," she said about clicking on to the site. "You always hope you have a rich relative somewhere."
Or maybe an angel looking for his wings...