updated 11/15/2009 5:11:00 PM ET 2009-11-15T22:11:00

Holders of lost savings bonds dating back to World War II say its not nearly as easy to track down the lost money as the U.S. Treasury Department claims in an ongoing lawsuit.

The Bureau of the Public Debt counters that its process aims to make sure that only the legal owners of the old bonds are able to redeem them. Demanding requirements — which can include the Social Security number of long-dead original purchasers for a gift bond — are in place to make sure the money ends up in the right place, the agency said.

Anne Adams of Nashville, Tenn., doesn't believe it.

She has spent months trying to recover lost bonds for her daughter and her husband. In both cases, she said the Treasury Department threw up insurmountable roadblocks to recovering the money.

Her husband served in the Marines during the Vietnam War, she said, and had a large portion of his paycheck automatically sent into savings bonds. Adams said the Treasury Department required copies of the original paycheck stubs in order to track down the lost bonds. The family had no way of getting the old paystubs from the Marines.

"It was a lot of money, probably half his paycheck for four years," Adams said.

For her daughter, Treasury is asking for the Social Security number of the now deceased family friend — from another state — who originally bought the $100 bond in the late 1970s.

"It was a waste of money, it was a complete waste of money," Adams said of the bonds. "I am sure that money is going somewhere, but it is not to the people it was intended for."

If she can't find the lost bond or the requested documentation, the Treasury Department doesn't have to send her the money.

"I am starting to think that is what they were counting on," Adams said.

Billions go unclaimed
Joyce Harris, with the Bureau of the Public Debt, said the agency needs to make sure that only the legal owners of the bonds can redeem them.

"We want to make sure the rightful owner is getting the proceeds of the bond," she said.

More than $16 billion worth of the bonds are unclaimed.

Several states are suing the federal government, seeking the money back on behalf of their residents.

Montana, New Jersey, North Carolina, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Missouri argue states are the legal repository for lost funds, and already have a system in place that makes it easy for people to reconnect with lost money.

The federal government counters that the money isn't really lost.

"It is not unclaimed property," said Harris, the Treasury spokeswoman. "It is unredeemed in our minds."

A Web site set up by the Treasury Department to help people track down lost bonds only searches back as far as the early 1970s — frustrating those who hold older bonds commonly bought much earlier during patriotic fundraising efforts.

But Harris said older records were not computerized. And she noted earlier bonds were often bought with just names, and not listed under a Social Security number that can facilitate a computer search.

Tom Boergadine of St. Louis said he has been trying to help his wife Gail track down a bond purchased in 1963. But he said the Treasury Department has been of little help, especially after it became clear the Internet search site was of no use to them.

"It's obviously frustrating," he said. "There is no lost bond department that we know of."

Boergadine said that the bond is not for a lot of money, perhaps $100. The relatively small sums of the bonds prompted many families to simply forget about them as time went on.

The bonds date back to the unprecedented bond buying campaign of World War II. Most American families bought at least one bond at the time and many never cashed them in — thanks in part to a 40-year maturity in the bonds. And those same "Series E" war bonds continued to be sold by the federal government until 1980.

Not everyone holding old, unredeemed bonds favors the lawsuit, which would transfer the money to the states.

Bea Giusti said her 83-year-old husband bought bonds when he was a soldier in World War II. The California resident who lives north of San Francisco says she doesn't trust the state — caught in a financial meltdown — with the money.

Giusti said the couple may simply pass the bonds on, unredeemed, to their grandchildren so they can be used later.

"We know we've got the bonds, and we know they are no longer gaining interest," she said. "We are not absent minded or feeble minded."

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