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Free Web site offers link to unclaimed money and property. 

Pay Dirt

Folks are constantly reminding you that you owe them money: the bank, credit-card companies, utilities.

So wouldn't it be nice for a change to hear that somebody owes you money, and that you just have to fill out some forms and prove your identity to claim it?

MissingMoney.com, a free Web site launched Monday, Nov. 8, wants to relay that good news. Virginia is among the first six states to provide its database of unclaimed property to MissingMoney, a division of Atlanta-based e-commerce firm CheckFree Corp.

Vicki Bridgeman, director of the Virginia Treasury Department's (www.trs.state.va.us) Unclaimed Property Division, says she expects MissingMoney to free department workers from processing claims, so that they can concentrate on finding property owners.

She says Virginia, with its sizable military and transient population, should yield plenty of eyeballs for MissingMoney. Because the site is free for users, site officials are counting on online advertising revenue to pay their bills.

After a piece of property — a bank account, utility deposit, or inheritance, for example — goes unclaimed for a certain period of time, it's up to the property holder to turn it in to the state. The state then safeguards the property until its owner claims it.

If no one claims it, the state stuffs the property into its Literary Fund. The state Department of Education administers the fund to provide low-interest loans to localities for building schools.

Virginia's interest in uniting property with its owners isn't entirely altruistic — the property doesn't generate tax revenue as long as no one claims it. Making that loot taxable largely depends on increased public awareness.

"Awareness is increasing," Bridgeman says. "We had more than 21,000 inquiries last fiscal year and we paid out more than 15,000 claims."

But that pales in comparison to what's out there. Last year, the Unclaimed Property Division made more than 180,000 entries of homeless stuff into its database.

The average claim value in Virginia is $902. About $25 million goes unclaimed in Virginia each year, and billions of dollars goes unclaimed nationwide.

Virginia's Unclaimed Property Division will continue putting ads with missing owners' names in newspapers across the state each spring, because it's the law.

In addition, the division puts up booths at the state fair and at large employers'offices to spread word of its existence.

"We're hoping we'll have time to do even more of that," Bridgeman says, since the Web site will free some workers of handling requests by phone.

Another advantage of MissingMoney, say its promoters, is that it allows claimants to skirt the 10 percent to 50 percent fees often charged by so-called heir finders. These services often find the property first, then contact the owner to tell him or her how to recover it — for a price.

Peter De Vries, president of the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators, vouches for the site, saying it allowed a multistate search "at a fraction of the time and cost of state-to-state searches."

Perhaps the biggest drawback of the site is its limited scope. As of Nov. 8, Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, Virginia, Wisconsin and Vermont databases were available on MissingMoney.com. A spokesman for the venture says Kansas, Maine, Oklahoma and Oregon are providing data and will be available soon. MissingMoney has contacted Treasury departments of all 50 states, but it's hard to tell when all will be available because some states might not keep unclaimed property information in a Net-friendly
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