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No third-party help needed to recover unclaimed funds

Published Sep. 1, 2005

I received the enclosed letter from a private investigation firm saying it had located $4,142 that is owed to me. The letter invited me to call to discuss recovering this money. My name is not very common, and the money involved could possibly be mine. Is there a way I can pursue this on my own? If so, how? Robert Simister

Response: We're glad you decided to check first before responding to the letter's offer. We did a quick search on the Florida Department of Financial Service's unclaimed property Web site and discovered that a Robert L. Simister does have unclaimed funds. If these funds turn out to be yours, there's no need to involve, and pay, a third party to retrieve them.

But first, here's a quick review of unclaimed property, what it is and how to claim it.

Unclaimed property can be any financial asset that appears to have been abandoned or not claimed by the owner. According to the Florida Department of Financial Services' Web site, the Bureau of Unclaimed Property is holding more than $900-million in unclaimed property and $25-million in securities (unclaimed shares of stock and mutual funds).

Most unclaimed property comes from dormant accounts in financial institutions, insurance and utility companies; uncashed dividends, royalties, payroll or cashier's checks; and stocks, bonds, trust holdings. These things can easily be forgotten or overlooked when someone moves or dies.

Businesses are required to try to find the owners, but when this proves impossible, as it sometimes does, the unclaimed or abandoned property and the owner's name are turned over to the state, generally after a set period of one to five years.

In Florida, the abandoned property is deposited into the state school fund, although the original amount is always available to be claimed, at no cost, by the owner or his heirs.

In addition to money and securities, the state also holds tangible property such as watches, jewelry, coins, currency, stamps and historical items. Unlike intangible property, these items, generally the contents of safe deposit boxes, are eventually auctioned.

The department tries to find the owners through Internet searches, driver's license matches, credit bureau searches and newspaper ads.

You may be due unclaimed property if you have moved and not given your forwarding address to everyone who might owe you money; not made a withdrawal from or deposit to a bank account in more than five years; retired or changed jobs and not picked up your last paycheck; stopped paying on an insurance policy; forgotten to pay the rental fee on a safe deposit box; or not received a deposit back from a utility, cable or telephone company.

You can search Florida's unclaimed property database at www.fltreasurehunt.org. The site also provides links to the unclaimed property pages of other states and agencies. Inquiries may also be made by calling the department's unclaimed property hotline at toll-free 1-888-258-2253 or (850) 410-9253 outside Florida.

Once it receives a claim form, the state has 90 days to make a determination on the claim. In many cases, funds are received in less time; stock reissues typically take longer.

Action periodically hears from readers who have received letters from third parties offering help in claiming "lost funds." Naturally, the company charges a fee, often a percentage of the amount collected. Though the companies are usually legitimate, you are not required to use a third party to claim unclaimed assets. Call the state's hotline before signing any contract with a private investigator-locator.

Nonrefundable means just that

I bought a nonrefundable plane ticket. I fell and now can't use it. Is there anything I can do? Margaret Blais

Response: Unfortunately, nonrefundable tickets are just that, nonrefundable. Generally, changes in dates can be made but at an additional cost. We suggest you check with the airline to see whether this is the case with your ticket. One way to avoid being stuck with a nonrefundable ticket is to buy travel insurance. If you do so, be sure to ask what it covers and under what conditions claims may be made.

Action solves problems and gets answers for you. If you have a question, or your own attempts to resolve a consumer complaint have failed, write Times Action, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731, or call your Action number, (727) 893-8171, or, outside of Pinellas, toll-free 1-800-333-7505, ext. 8171, to leave a recorded request.

Requests will be accepted only by mail or voice mail; calls cannot be returned. We will not be responsible for personal documents, so please send only photocopies. If your complaint concerns merchandise ordered by mail, we need copies of both sides of your canceled check.

We may require additional information or prefer to reply by mail; therefore, readers must provide a full mailing address, including ZIP code. Names of letter writers will not be omitted except in unusual circumstances. Letters may be edited.