He's got your dough
Making money recovering lost assets for their rightful owners.
By Nadira A. Hira, Fortune writer-reporter

(Fortune Magazine) -- Americans abandon about $5 billion a year. Whatever the cause - be it stock certificates mislaid in the back of a dresser drawer or Granddad forgetting to list a savings account in his will - reuniting those lost assets with their rightful owners was a decidedly unsexy subset of the financial services industry. Until now.

What's changing is that politicians are acting like collection agents. For more than 30 years, corporations and financial institutions have been turning over abandoned property to the state governments for "safekeeping." The states used to wait five to seven years before appropriating the money.

But in Alabama, California, Connecticut, Texas, New York, and other states, the dormancy period for the majority of assets is now three years or less. According to the state controller's office, California received almost $900 million in unclaimed property in 2005, only $240 million of which was used to pay claims.

This shrinking time frame between assets disappearing and states taking them has created a potentially lucrative niche business that Charlie Ginsberg is poised to exploit. Ginsberg, a 66-year-old New York native and a serial entrepreneur, has been in the business of heir location since 1963. He famously reunited a six-figure fortune with a homeless stockboy in California several years ago.

In 2003 he founded SMS Group. The 23-person, privately held company conducts lost-owner searches for banks and corporations, including Coca-Cola (Charts), for which SMS has tracked down 1,800 lost shareholders in the past year.

SMS prides itself on finding lost owners-dead or alive. Since opening shop, Ginsberg and his team have found new addresses for more than 85% of their living cases, and over 50% of those contacted have responded to SMS.

Instead of charging companies for this service, SMS generates its revenue through the "deceased" accounts - roughly 7% to 10% of the workload for each client, according to Nick Nichols, SMS's director of sales and client services.

The company employs researchers and five genealogists to find the heirs, then the company contacts them and charges a percentage for connecting them with Aunt Bessie's long-lost Frito-Lay shares.

"It could be just a matter of calling the person's estate and finding the heir," Nichols says. "Or it could be five genealogists around the conference table with a huge family tree spread out in front of them."

Either way, the company is poised for growth. SMS has announced a new service that will help banks conduct electronic auctions of contents pried from abandoned safe-deposit boxes. (They, too, must be turned over to the states, often after liquidation.)

Elsewhere in the unclaimed-property universe, state treasurers and industry leaders have banded together to launch Operation Rightful Owner. The project is the largest undertaking ever in the field. It aims to locate the owners of more than 30 million unredeemed U.S. savings bonds dating back to the 1940s and worth over $13 billion. Considering those bonds were the go-to investment vehicle for the Greatest Generation, we all may be in for a little windfall.  Top of page