The Lost and Found of Missing Money

BOSTON (TheStreet) -- We often hear of an unexpected windfall or bonus as being "found money." Unfortunately, Americans waste billions in "lost" assets.

Through personal oversight, negligence and even misdirection, people lose money that is rightfully theirs -- by the billions.

According to the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators, an association of the state unclaimed property programs, nearly $33 billion of unclaimed property is in state treasuries.

There are forgotten bank accounts, uncashed dividends, ignored stocks, unredeemed savings bonds, missing lottery tickets, never-claimed rental and utility deposits, overpayments and abandoned safe deposit boxes.

States typically step in as caretakers -- and eventually takers -- of these assets left in limbo. Naupa offers a free website, www.unclaimed.org, to help those who suspect they may have missing money in their name track it down state by state. State treasurers also run periodic lists of "unclaimed money." (Naupa also endorses a free but commercially run site MissingMoney.com.)

Mary Pittman, author of "The Little Book of Missing Money: A Quick and Easy Guide to Finding Money that is Rightfully Yours", offered TheStreet some perspective on lost money.

According to her current research, the largest single listings to an individual in NY was for $4 million for a stock claim and within the state of Iowa alone there are 2,000,000 shares of stock waiting to be claimed. There is one person in New York with $1.7 million waiting to be claimed; in California, another individual has $1.6 million waiting for them.

The following are some of the ways people "lose" money and who is at the ready to claim it when they don't:

Savings bonds
It was announced earlier this month by the Treasury Department that as of Jan. 1, paper savings bonds will no longer be sold.

It is estimated that ending the sales of paper payroll and new issues of OTC bonds will save $120 million over the next five years in areas such as printing, mailing, storing bond stock and fees paid to financial institutions for processing bond applications. Savings Bonds can be bought online at the TreasuryDirect site. Paper savings bonds can still be bought using part, or all, of a tax refund.

Even with paper bonds as the norm, however, investors have proven very forgetful when it comes to redeeming these notes once they reach maturity.

According to the U.S. Treasury, each year 25,000 payments are returned to the Department of the Treasury as undeliverable and "billions of dollars in savings bonds have stopped earning interest, but haven't been cashed." That total is estimated at more than $16 billion.

In response, the site Treasury Hunt was created for investors to track savings bonds that are no longer earning interest, encouraging them to cash or reinvest them.

Gambling wins
You can't win if you don't play. You also can't collect if you lose your ticket.

The days of dingy coin cups are a thing of the past in most casinos. Whereas slot machines used to spit out a stream of clanging quarters, they now print out a paper receipt with your winnings or leftover balance. These can be redeemed with a cashier or at on-site redemption machine or ATM.

So what do you do when Lady Luck leaves you with only 17 cents on that ticket? Some hold onto them, hoping to cash in a pile of small amounts at once. Some keep the ticket in a wallet or purse to add slightly to future play. A recent approach is to seek good karma by giving a ticket to an active player or just leaving it leaning against your slot machine's bet buttons for the next person to come along.

A lot of folks, however, merely discard or lose the slips and, usually after 30 days, the money reverts back to the casino. A few cents here, a couple of bucks there -- it all adds up nicely for them.

Now states are looking to home in on the lost-money action. In March, Las Vegas Assemblyman William Horne pushed a bill that would declare bettors the "owner" of payout vouchers, not the casino. Lacking a way to track these tickets back to the player, their unclaimed value would be considered "unclaimed property" and surrendered to state coffers. The bill, which has failed to gain much traction, would net Nevada as much as $35 million, the estimated amount unclaimed at the state's casinos at the time of the proposal.

Lottery tickets are another arena where winners apparently lose track of their good fortune, with estimates of more than $600 million a year going unclaimed.

California's lottery amassed $30 million last year alone, a total that includes an unredeemed $12 million winning Superlotto ticket. In Wisconsin, a $1 million Powerball ticket is among the recent listing of uncashed tickets.

States have different ways to handle unclaimed lottery money. Michigan, for example, earmarks the money to a school aid fund. Others either parlay the funds back into their lotteries or gobble them up into the general fund.

Insurance policies
Major insurance companies are in hot water, and in some states under investigation, for allegedly trying to make it harder for beneficiaries to realize they have money coming their way.

At issue is the claim that insurance companies are keeping tabs on the Social Security Administration's database of the deceased to stop payment on annuity products. But even with that data on hand they are failing to use it to reach out to beneficiaries of life insurance policies and may even start deducting unpaid premiums from the accrued value.

Last month, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman subpoenaed New York Life, AXA, TIAA-CREF, Manulife, Genworth ( GNW), Guardian Life Insurance ( MFC), MassMutual Financial Group, MetLife ( MET) and Prudential ( PRU) as part of its investigation into the matter. Thirty-five other states have launched similar efforts.

On the street
If you ever stumble across a $5 bill and take it from the sidewalk -- perhaps after a shuffle of the shoe to move it inconspicuously away from onlookers -- you may have broken the law.

Many cities and states (among them California) have laws requiring that all found property be reported to police and a reasonable effort put into finding the unlucky owner. The laws typically don't define a value so, technically, even a quarter dropped by the gumball machine would warrant a trip to the station.

If you kick a can littering your path, be aware that whoever failed to recycle might as well have tossed their money on the sidewalk. A nickel here and there may not seem like much, but it adds up when thousands of people in bottle bill states avoid bringing their empties back to the store or a redemption center.

In Massachusetts -- a state looking to extend its 5-cent deposit to bottled water and tea drinks -- the new fiscal year includes $20 million in revenue collected from unreturned bottles. New York, by comparison, nets more than $100 a year from unredeemed containers.

Gift cards
If you get a $20 gift card for your birthday, the odds you will use exactly that amount on a purchase is slim. Many might spend a buck or two shy of the value and, over time, forget they have the card or lose it.

Retailers love it when that happens.

And while you may not think of them as such, those rewards points you rack up with credit cards are also really "use it or lose it" money.

A study earlier this year by Plastic Jungle, an online marketplace for buying and selling gift cards, said about $90 billion in gift cards are sold a year and as much as $30 billion of that value goes unused.

States, as they do in tough fiscal times, are increasingly trying to stake their claim to those unused balances as though they were abandoned property.

In New Jersey, for example, legislators passed a bill last year allowing the state to seize unclaimed gift card balances after two years of inactivity (travelers checks and money orders go into its coffers after three). The move, expected to add $80 million to the budget, is on hold with legal challenges.

Retailers themselves, when they can, add unclaimed gift cards to their bottom line, itemizing these funds as "breakage."

Loyalty programs are another way many lose money without realizing it.

According to research released in April by Colloquy, a publishing, education and research firm focused on the loyalty-marketing industry, Americans accumulate approximately $48 billion in rewards points and miles annually.

The study, billed as the first-ever on the perceived dollar value of loyalty programs, found that out of the billions of perceived value in reward points and miles businesses issue annually, at least one-third ( $16 billion) goes unredeemed by consumers.

Put in perspective, the average household active in loyalty programs earns $622 a year, but does not redeem $205 of those rewards.

"That's enough to buy an airline ticket, purchase a week's worth of groceries or even a smartphone," the study says.

-- Written by Joe Mont in Boston.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Joe Mont.

>To follow the writer on Twitter, go to http://twitter.com/josephmont.

>To submit a news tip, send an email to: tips@thestreet.com.

RELATED STORIES:



Get more stock ideas and investing advice on our sister site, Stockpickr.com.

More from Personal Finance

What Is Shane Smith's Net Worth?

What Is Shane Smith's Net Worth?

What Is Cristiano Ronaldo's Net Worth?

What Is Cristiano Ronaldo's Net Worth?

3 Apps Than Make Retirement Planning Fun for Millennials

3 Apps Than Make Retirement Planning Fun for Millennials

What the Fed Rate Hike Means For You

What the Fed Rate Hike Means For You

What Is Drew Brees' Net Worth?

What Is Drew Brees' Net Worth?