Postcards and fliers that offer, for a fee, to help Marylanders find out if they are entitled to any unclaimed funds held by the state are selling information easily available for free.
Maryland holds $60 million in unclaimed funds, part of the estimated $5 billion held by states and companies nationwide.
Marvin Bond, spokesman for the state comptroller's office, said postcards that require a $10 call to a 900 number to get information first surfaced in the area in June.
Fliers advertising information for between $10 and $17 began circulating in August, Bond said.
"What you are going to get in some cases is a generic list of unclaimed property offices around the country and a generic claim form," Bond said.
The results were even worse when state officials called the 900 number. Although the company promised to send information and a claim form within a week, nothing ever was received.
Bond said the comptroller's office got "quite a few" calls but had little recourse because none of the companies involved were based in Maryland.
The unclaimed $60 million held by the state belongs to about 160,000 individuals and businesses. While most are worth small amounts, "we do have accounts in excess of $100,000," Bond said.
And, Bond added, there have been several worth several hundred thousand dollars.
"Usually those belong to people on the other side of the world whose parents have died and left stock they didn't know about and it never got into the estate and it has split and split again," Bond said. The state sells the stock and all the money belongs to the heirs.
Bond said all anyone has to do to find out if any unclaimed money belongs to him is call one of the comptroller's 18 offices around the state. The field offices are all hooked up to the main computer holding the information and can check while the caller is on the phone. The number for the Baltimore office is 225-1700.
Heirs also are entitled to funds belonging to a deceased person. Money also could be held under a maiden name if acquired before marriage.
There is no time limit for making a claim.
The comptroller's office also can tell residents how to check for unclaimed property in other states.
"We give back about 20 percent of the money we get each year, which among the states is a good record," Bond said.
The state receives $16 million to $17 million a year in new unclaimed funds and in the last fiscal year paid out about 25
percent, or $4.5 million, to 4,232 people.
As part of its campaign to find more owners, the state also cross-checks files against those with good addresses, such as state employees or the master income tax list.
And for the last two years, the comptroller's office has put a computer terminal in a booth at the state fair in Timonium. This year, of the more than 13,000 people who checked, 889 of them were found to be due $241,273.
Bond said the comptroller's office was planning to get portable computers to take to county fairs and festivals statewide.
Bond said most of the money comes from dormant bank accounts -- those with no transactions for 5 years -- although it can come from almost anywhere, including unclaimed dividends, tax refunds and pay checks.
"One of the most common things you get are turned over to us by health insurers," Bond said. Often, he said, these are settlement checks that have been sent to the wrong address and returned to the insurer.
The comptroller also receives the contents from several hundred safe deposit boxes a year.
In many of those cases, Bond said, the person is often the second of a couple to die and the heirs don't know the box exists.
Boxes often contain stocks and bonds and valuables such as collections and jewelry.
Stocks and bonds are sold and the money held for the owner; coins and other valuables are appraised and eventually sold at auction.
As a result, the overall amount tends to hover around a certain level for several years and then grow. Some of the current accounts date back to the 1950s, Bond said.
The state distributes unclaimed funds each year to subdivisions according to the last known address of the account holders. A reserve is kept to cover claims.
"The most unusual thing we ever got was in the mid '70s," Bond related.
The contents of a safe deposit box yielded a poetry text belonging to Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson and a framed dispatch purportedly from Jackson to Gen. Robert E. Lee sent from Chancellorsville, Va., the day Jackson was mortally wounded.
The state decided to present the finds to the Maryland Historical Society, and as a result of the publicity found out the dispatch was a fake. The text, however, did belong to Jackson.