Dear Dagen: Locating Lost Lucent Shares

Here's how to track down AT&T's progeny.
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I worked for AT&T (T) - Get Report in 1996 and would like to check to see if I have any Lucent (LU) shares. How would you suggest I do that? -- Cheryl Ellis

Cheryl,

Some people lose their keys. Others lose shares of

General Electric

(GE) - Get Report

.

Believe it or not, people do lose track of their investments or assets, perhaps because of frequent address changes, an unknown inheritance or simple forgetfulness.

If you are one of these lost shareholders, you just have to figure out how to find and claim these assets.

Luckily, Lucent is a young company. When it was spun off from AT&T in April 1996, Ma Bell shareholders received about one-third of a Lucent share for every share of AT&T they owned at the time.

Later that year, AT&T also spun off

NCR

(NCR) - Get Report

, so you might own a little bit of that company, too. AT&T shareholders received one share of NCR for every 16 shares of AT&T they owned.

People who owned AT&T before its 1984 breakup would be in for a much bigger ball of confusion.

The breakup created seven

Baby Bells

:

Ameritech

,

Bell Atlantic

(BEL)

,

BellSouth

(BLS)

,

Nynex

,

Pacific Telesis

,

Southwestern Bell

(now called

SBC Communications

(SBC)

) and

U S West

(USW)

.

Any AT&T shareholder at that time would have gotten shares in each of these companies. But over the years, these companies have dated, married and divorced. Some of the highlights: SBC acquired Pacific Telesis in 1996 and then bought Ameritech this year. Nynex merged with Bell Atlantic. U S West split into two companies: U S West and

MediaOne

(UMG)

. AT&T is now buying MediaOne, and

Qwest Communications

(QWST)

is merging with U S West.

If you owned AT&T prior to the breakup, "you now own a mutual fund of stocks if you kept them all," says Charles Carlson, editor of the

DRIP Investor Newsletter

.

Not surprisingly, this hectic schedule of mergers and acquisitions has lost many shareholders in the confusion. Or maybe your Uncle Arthur bought some shares of AT&T for your 10th birthday and now he can't find all the shares they've spawned.

If you think you own stock in Lucent or any other company, you should always start by calling a company's shareholder services number and its transfer agent. (AT&T's shareholder services number is 800-348-8288. Lucent's is 888-582-3686.)

A company hires a transfer agent to handle record-keeping and other shareholder services. There are a handful of dominant transfer agents in the country, including

EquiServe

and

Chase Mellon Shareholder Services

.

However, the company or its transfer agent will only have you on record as a shareholder if you (or the family member) have registered the shares directly with the company. Stocks are either registered with a company in the actual shareholder's name or are held in what is called a "street name," the name of the brokerage firm where you have an account or bought the shares.

For example, shareholders enrolled in a company's dividend reinvestment plan will be on that company's books. But the majority of all shares in the U.S. are held in a street name, which makes it quicker and easier to move the shares when they are sold. According to the

Depository Trust Co.

, 83% of all shares listed on the

New York Stock Exchange

and 70% of all shares on the

Nasdaq

were held in a street name at the end of 1998.

If you don't have any luck with a company's shareholder services division or its transfer agent, try contacting the brokerage firm where you think the account is or was located. That brokerage firm might have old records of stock ownership.

If you're lucky, perhaps the company will come looking for you.

In late 1997, the

Securities and Exchange Commission

approved a rule that requires transfer agents to make certain efforts to locate shareholders whose addresses are lost. Transfer agents must conduct two database searches for lost shareholders within about a two-year period.

"For some of the larger transfer agents, this was just formalizing procedures already in place," says Lee Orelowitz, vice president at

Georgeson Shareholder Communications

in New York.

These rules apply to shareholders whose addresses are unknown. But mergers and acquisitions can result in another type of dormant account: the unexchanged account.

When a company is acquired, very often its shareholders will receive stock in the new company. But some of these shareholders will inevitably fail to fill out the appropriate paperwork to receive shares in the new company. Companies then hire firms such as Georgeson Shareholder Communications to contact these inactive accounts.

Both lost and unexchanged accounts can eventually turn into abandoned property. Each state has its own regulations concerning unclaimed or abandoned assets. Dormant assets are turned over to the state as unclaimed property after maybe three years, five years or even longer, depending on your state. "States will hold the assets in a custodial manner. They don't belong to the state," Orelowitz says. In other words, unclaimed property usually sits idly in a state account until you come looking for it.

Nowadays, you can search for unclaimed property on the Internet. The

National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators

operates a Web

site that provides information on every state's unclaimed property agency. Some states have sites that allow you to quickly find out if there is unclaimed property in your name. These sites will just tell if you have any unclaimed property -- not how much. From there, you'll have to file a written claim with the state.

There are also firms out there that search for the owners of unclaimed property. But some will keep a large percentage of those assets as their fee.

Doing it yourself -- for free -- is more desirable.

Send your questions and comments to

deardagen@thestreet.com, and please include your full name.

Dear Dagen aims to provide general fund information. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell funds or other securities.