When Valorie Golin went to visit her parents in March, the first thing she did was get into their bank accounts.
Golin had no larcenous intent. Quite the opposite. The 32-year-old banker was trying to keep the state of Pennsylvania from seizing her parents' savings.
You may assume it's safe to deposit money in a bank -- or buy stocks or other financial assets -- and then simply leave your account alone. It's not. Under most state laws, if you don't initiate a transaction or communicate with the financial institution about it, the account is considered dormant. After three years of inactivity, your assets typically can be turned over to the state.
"You've got to do something to make sure the account is considered active," said Golin, an expert on dormant accounts with ING Direct, an online unit of the financial services giant ING Group. "Otherwise the $10,000 you have saved for a rainy day might just be gone when you get around to trying to use it."
The National Assn. of Unclaimed Property Administrators, a group representing state treasurers offices, says $4.7 billion in "abandoned" assets was turned over to states in fiscal 2006, the latest year for which figures are available.
That brought to $33 billion the amount of such assets in state hands. That property was seized from 117 million people, meaning there's a good chance some of it is yours.
The average works out to $282 per person. It won't pay for retirement, but it's nothing to sneeze at either.
Laws on abandoned property were enacted to protect consumers -- to keep banks from eating up dormant accounts through annual account fees. Theoretically, the states are simply holding the assets in safekeeping until the owners turn up to claim them.
But over the course of the last few decades, the system has become a source of cash for states, which generally do not pay interest on the abandoned funds and can use the money to fill budget holes until it is claimed. Only a fraction of these assets are ever claimed.
Anyone who sets aside money for long-term goals, such as college expenses or the final years of retirement, is especially vulnerable.
"There's a guy I work with who got a certificate of deposit when he got out of high school and was all excited when he graduated college because he was going to use it," Golin said. "It was gone."
The money can be retrieved, but it's often difficult. The first challenge is finding the assets; the second is filling out the copious paperwork required to get it back. The process can take months.
In many instances, assets such as jewelry and stocks that are seized from safe deposit boxes and brokerage accounts are sold shortly after going to the state. Not only can you miss out on future appreciation on your stocks, but you also can lose Grandma's jewelry.
The firms that turn your assets over to the state -- usually banks, brokerages, mutual funds and insurance companies -- and the state itself are supposed to make an attempt to contact you either before or soon after the property is handed over. But many property owners never find out.
It's a good idea to check your state's online database of abandoned property to see whether any of it is your family's. You might also want to check databases for any states you used to live in.
I found three of my relatives on California's database -- two cousins and an aunt. Two of the three were still living at the addresses listed in the system, but were unaware that their property was there. One cousin offered to buy dinner after he collected his money.
California, which last year lost a decade-long legal battle over the way it handles abandoned property, is now making a greater effort to contact property owners and allowing more time before property is seized.
Since October, the state has mailed 2.5 million notices to owners of abandoned accounts. That's twice as many as the total it sent in the previous 10 years, said Hallye Jordan, spokeswoman for the state controller.
But some states are moving in the opposite direction.
In the last two years, more than half a dozen states have shortened the time required before funds must be turned over, and few states actively monitor whether companies are notifying account holders.
Citing budget constraints, many states have turned to websites and classified newspaper ads to find owners, rather than the mail or searching tax rolls.
That makes it crucial to keep your accounts active, Golin said.
If you've opened an account for yourself or a child, make sure you sign into it online at least once a year. Better yet, deposit or withdraw money, she said. Any transaction, no matter how small, keeps the account active. If you have a safe deposit box, visit it annually. And urge your family members to do the same.
"This affects everyone -- your brothers and sisters, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins -- everyone," Golin said. "People need to be educated so they don't lose their assets."