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Does someone owe you money? Find out here

Of all the axioms you'll read over and over in a consumer advice column like this, the most trite is: "If it sounds too good to be true, it is." The helpful rule of thumb, however, doesn't always apply. In fact, when it comes to unclaimed property, what sounds too good to be true is sometimes very much the truth.

It is entirely possible that you have money coming to you that you don't know about. It’s true. Money that you or a family member left behind accidentally many years ago may be sitting in a state treasury account waiting for you to come and claim it. In fact, billions of dollars in unclaimed funds are right now waiting to be claimed. On Sunday night at 8 p.m. ET, Dateline NBC will air some heartwarming stories of Americans who discover they have thousands of dollars in surprise money on the way.

The problem is, many heartwarming stories are turning into heartaches, as con arists and manipulators are swarming around the missing money, sometimes tricking unwitting consumers into surrendering one-third of the funds for little or no work. Many would-be middlemen buy lists state offices then contact consumers offering to recover the funds for a sizable fee. While there are legitimate companies who do this, the industry is generally unsavory, says Shane Osborn, president of the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators.

'Even prisoners' getting in on the scams

"We even have prisoners requesting these lists (and making money)," he said. "They really target the elderly with this, tell them they'll lose the money if they don't act right away. They take advantage of people who aren't informed."

The problem is so bad that this week about 30 state treasurers sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission asking it to investigate.

Osborn, who is also the state treasurer of Nebraska, is on a mission to return the money to as many consumers as he can.

"It's the people's money, not the government's. Government's already gotten enough of their money," he said.

But added publicity around unclaimed funds is a double-edged sword. While Osborn brags that he's returned $33 million to state residents in the past two years, the publicity surrounding the issue has opened the door to scam artists and middlemen.

So Osborn is speaking out to make sure taxpayers visit the right Web site to check for money. He's also spearheading efforts to initiate the federal investigation, and to pass legislation limiting the sale of unclaimed property lists to third parties.

Try this Web site

Here's the short version: It's easy to see if you have unclaimed money coming to you. Just visit free site unclaimed.org and follow the instructions. You shouldn't ever pay anyone for help in recovering your money, says Osborn.

If you receive a letter from someone saying you've got money to claim, don't respond. Just visit unclaimed.org -- type the URL carefully, because a flock of for-profit imitators have sprung up online-- and check.

How could this fairytale-like tale of free money be true? Why would any state government be holding money that belongs to you? Many states have what are called escheat laws, which require companies that owe money to consumers but can't find them to "escheat" the funds to the state government after a certain time period expires. Once there, the funds are still available to be claimed by the rightful owner. But states go to varying degrees of trouble to inform consumers. In fact, they have a financial incentive not to tell. Interest earned on the money, which can be significant, belongs to the state treasury. In some states, after a certain amount of time passes, the state gets to keep the money.

Why would you forget about money you have coming to you? It's common for consumers to forget about a small balance in a bank account, or an overpayment made on the last check sent to a mortgage company, for example.

Some examples from Washington

A quick search of Washington state's unclaimed property site offers a few more examples:

*A bail refund in the amount of $50-$100.

*An "unidentified remittance" from Chase Manhattan Bank for "over $100."

*An unclaimed rebate in the amount of $25-$50 from electronics store Car Toys.

Consumers who want to see what they have coming to them should search every state they've ever lived in.

But they shouldn't accept unsolicited offers from organizations promising to help them find the money.

"There's no defense of this practice," said Osborn. "Especially the ones taking 33 or 35 percent of the money."

Consumers should also avoid companies that urge them to call a phone number with an 809 area code promising to assist in the search for free cash. Calls to 809 numbers are billed at a high rate, similar to 1-900 numbers.

"If you got contacted by one of these agencies, you need to call you state's unclaimed property office and report it,” he said.