CONSUMER FORUM

How to avoid scams hiding behind unclaimed property lists

Posted April 06, 2014, at 12:47 p.m.

After seeing a recent news release from the Maine treasurer’s office, a Northeast CONTACT caseworker told a friend that his name was on the treasurer’s list of unclaimed property owners. All that he had to do was call the treasurer’s office, identify himself and give his Social Security number to verify his identity.

The friend was indignant.

“I’m not revealing my Social Security number,” the friend said. “Don’t you know what could happen?”

The caseworker replied, “You don’t think the state of Maine knows your Social Security number already?”

The friend was being cautious, perhaps overly cautious. We urge consumers to claim property, cash or other valuables that are rightfully theirs. And we urge them to do so in an orderly manner, so as not to fall victim to a number of scams that are out there.

First, we’ll define unclaimed property as lost or forgotten assets. Funds in idle bank or credit union accounts, uncashed payroll or dividend checks, unredeemed money orders, even gift certificates may be unclaimed property. These and other abandoned assets total over $41 billion waiting to be claimed, because the rightful owners could not be located in a specified span of time.

Among the things that do not constitute unclaimed property are real estate (see appropriate municipal officials); abandoned animals (animal welfare laws apply); and abandoned vehicles (Maine’s Bureau of Motor Vehicles can advise on these).

Let’s look at the Maine state treasurer’s website at www.maine.gov/unclaimed. There, you can search for unclaimed property you may own or report unclaimed property. A fact sheet puts total unclaimed funds in Maine, from 1979 to 2013, at more than $191 million. During fiscal year 2013, the state paid more than 16,000 claims averaging a bit over $1,000 each. The largest single payout was over $130,000.

To claim your abandoned property, complete an online form on the state treasurer’s website at www.maine.gov/treasurer; or print out a blank form, fill it out and mail it to the treasurer’s office (39 State House Station, Augusta, ME 04330).There is no fee to file a claim, and there’s no need to pay anyone else to help you. For assistance, call 624-7470 or toll-free in Maine at 888-283-2808.

The federal government does not have a single website to search, so you’ll need to search individual states if you have unclaimed property outside Maine. The feds do have leads to finding property that may have been subject to federal regulation (failed financial institutions, savings bonds no longer earning interest and so on) at www.usa.gov (search for “unclaimed property”).

State treasurers across the country maintain a National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators website at www.unclaimed.org. You can find links to other states where you have lived to search for unclaimed property. You can also report suspicious unclaimed property email messages and websites to the Internet Crime Complaint Center.

And, yes, the scammers are out there. Here are some tip-offs of frauds: They may pose as National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators officials when sending fraudulent emails (which real unclaimed property officers never do). They might try to refer you to someone other than a state official (this work is not outsourced). They could demand a fee (there’s never a charge). And they’ll likely want bank account information (although you might have to supply personal information such as your Social Security number, you’ll never be asked for bank account info).

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer, ME 04412, visit http://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

 

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