‘Found’ Money for a Fee? Beware of New Surge in Unclaimed Property Scams

A longtime scam is back with a vengeance: claims that state officials are holding money or property that belongs to you, and all you need to do is pay a fee to claim it.

Actually, the first part could be true. You could be entitled to a slice of some $43 billion in “unclaimed property” that sits in state treasuries — money from forgotten bank accounts, insurance policies, stock dividends, utility security deposits, even contents from abandoned safe deposit boxes.

But you don’t have to pay anyone to get it. The only cost is spending a few minutes at www.MissingMoney.com, www.Unclaimed.org or websites of the treasurer’s office in each state where you have lived.

Ignore “pay-for-payment” requests that come via mailed letter, email or telephone calls — because they are from scammers. Reports about the come-on cons have increased tenfold this year compared to 2016. And in recent weeks, they’ve exploded in many parts of the U.S.

There are several variations in unclaimed property scams, each angling for personal information (which can be used later for identity theft) and upfront payments. This is presumably to secure missing money that, if it actually awaits you, can always be claimed for free.

  • Fraudsters lie about being an employee or affiliate of a treasurer’s office in a state where you currently live or previously resided.
  • Fake correspondence comes on letterhead from the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators (NAUPA), a legitimate organization that represents state unclaimed property programs but does not directly contact citizens.
  • Self-described “finders” or “locators” say they have already located your missing money or will do the legwork on your behalf. Some are legal but unnecessary middlemen who charge commissions of up to 40 percent (although some states cap allowed fees at 10 percent); others are crooks who do nothing more than collect your payment and personal information — including your Social Security number — to direct you to publicly available websites (if they do anything at all).

Most targets in unclaimed property scams are chosen randomly. Fraudsters buy mailing lists to reach hundreds or thousands of citizens with the same bogus claim. Last year, it was a letter claiming to be from NAUPA or the “Office of the State Treasurer” that falsely stated that recipients had unclaimed sweepstakes winnings whose allocation would require a $2,250 service fee.

But for a more convincing con, some would-be victims are contacted after fraudsters search MissingMoney.com or Unclaimed.org to unearth specific details such as past addresses or actual entitlements.

In addition to those two websites, DIY (and no-cost) due diligence for other missing money can be done for:

 

All of these websites will require your Social Security number and other sensitive information. But unlike scammers, you will not be asked for bank or credit card information. Don’t reveal personal information unless you initiate contact with these agencies or use their websites.

For information about other scams, sign up for the Fraud Watch Network. You’ll receive free email alerts with tips and resources to help you spot and avoid identity theft and fraud, and gain access to a network of experts, law enforcement and people in your community who will keep you up to date on the latest scams in your area.

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Photo Credit: iStock/Pogonici

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