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Free Money? Actually, Yes

Everyone is talking about losing money these days, but millions of Americans are actually finding money that they never knew they had.

There’s at least $32 billion out there waiting to be returned to more than 100 million rightful owners. It’s called unclaimed property – from forgotten bank accounts to stock certifications, insurance refunds, un-cashed dividends or even life insurance policies – and each state has an unclaimed property statute that protects consumers from losing their financial property. By law, companies must turn that money over to the state and, from there, the state must try to turn it back to you. State treasurers use the web and newspaper ads to do so and so far, they’re giving back $2 billion a year.

Dateline NBC’s Tiki Barber revealed a financial windfall to one Louisiana woman, telling her about $237,000 her old friend left her after his death. Needless to say, she was floored (watch the video at left for the full story).

So could your state be sitting on a pile of your money without you even knowing it? Shane Osborne, president of the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators, says he is amazed by how few people know how much money is involved. Most of us think we could never lose track of large sums of money owed to us, but the statistics show it’s easier than you think.

To search to see if you have unclaimed property out there, head to MissingMoney.com – an online collaborative database that culls the statistics from 40 states. In researching this story, Osborne even found some money for himself – and Carmen found some unclaimed cash for her husband in Michigan!

With any story involving – literally – free money, there’s always a dark underbelly. We brought in scam expert Bob Sullivan of MSNBC's Red Tape Chronicles who said that while he lives by the mantra “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” this is actually legit.

It is, however, a haven for scammers. So in your search for unclaimed money, Sullivan reminds that this is a free service. Anyone offering to help you find what is rightfully yours for a fee should be ignored. Because the information is, for the most part, part of public record, some scammers will acquire the list and act as an intermediary for the uninformed, charging huge finder’s fees to reunite you with your money.

So as long as you go through either your state treasurer’s website or the official MissingMoney website, you should be able to avoid the scammers, Sullivan says.