We've all daydreamed about winning the lotto, but who would imagine that we might be able to walk away with money, perfectly legally, without even buying a lotto ticket?

It all sounds far too good to be true, but Rochelle Treister of Kfar Saba has proved that it's no fable.

"Over $40 billion exists in unclaimed money in the US and Canada," she says.

That sounds like an enormous sum to be abandoned, but according to Rochelle, there are many ways this can happen.

"The money might be, for example, in an account or insurance policy that a grandfather set up for his grandchildren, which no one knows about. When he dies, the heirs are unaware that the money exists. Or, the money may be from utility company deposits that college students or others forget to reclaim when they move. It could be that a treasurer of an organization opens a bank account nearby for convenience, and then when he or she leaves office, forgets to transfer it to the new treasurer. There might even be forgotten money from bankruptcy court. Someone might put in a claim from a firm that has gone bankrupt. By the time the claim eventually comes through, the claimant has forgotten all about it and moved somewhere else so the information never reaches him. Most of it boils down to bad addresses on file or faulty memories or both."

What happens to such money? By law, after a certain period, it has to be turned over to the relevant state or province. The government is obliged to try to find the owner of the account, but sometimes it doesn't try very hard, because although it can't claim the money itself, it can keep the interest. "If the government can't find whom it belongs to, it just sits there for decades," Rochelle says and she adds, "Some of it might very well be yours."

If you don't believe her, consider this: Rochelle has found, among many other pots of gold, some $40,000 in a bank account belonging to a former roommate. She also was instrumental in claiming $10,000 for Hadassah WIZO. In one recent month, she came up with 129 claims totaling over $90,000.

It all started when Rochelle, a computer science graduate who runs her own business-writing firm, was surfing the internet and stumbled on a source of forgotten funds three years ago.

"Just for fun, I looked for money using the names of my friends and family. I found some, and I was hooked. I started looking on behalf of everyone I knew – using old summer camp lists, my graduating class and so on. It was such a fun way to reconnect with people from the past. Eventually I ran out of people so, on a whim, I typed in the word "Jewish." Hundreds of sources came up. I realized that I had hit a goldmine. Maybe, it occurred to me, this could be used for fund-raising on behalf of charities."

"Imagine if an organization that had always asked people for money, was able to give money back! The organization can't claim the money – only the owners can – but if they are told about it, they might very well donate that money, or part of it, back to the charity. With $40 billion available in claims, the potential source of income could be huge."

From that premise, Rochelle started on her quest to find windfalls on behalf of people, businesses and nonprofit organizations, with the proviso that at least a part of what is found be donated to a charity.

There are many relevant sites, but Rochelle generally starts by exploring the internet site NAUPA (the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators), an American government site which refers enquirers to the individual states. There, the claimant fills out a form and instantly, the unclaimed properties, if any, are listed.

How many people might this windfall apply to? More than you would imagine, as Rochelle discovered when she tried an experiment. She took the newsletter of a large American synagogue and checked out the names of everyone listed in it, whether they were barmitzvah families, families of yahrzeit memorials or synagogue officers. In all, there were 250 names, and for 60, or about one-quarter, there was money to be claimed – slightly over $60,000 in total. She contacted the synagogue with this information.

There were difficulties, of course. Some people, not surprisingly, are suspicious that this might be a scam, particularly men, oddly enough. Organizations are wary because they feel that they may be accused of prying into their members' private financial affairs even though all of the information is publicly available on the internet.

That is why Rochelle has started a website called Charity Windfall.   http://CharityWindfall.wordpress.com and a Facebook "cause" of the same name. To get people thinking about it as a way to find money for nonprofits, she writes about sources to check and lists possible words - such as "peace" - to check in the unclaimed funds search engines.

Rochelle is happy to look on behalf of people and claims not a shekel for herself.

"It's my own personal mitzvah," she says. "I feel great when I find something and the person commits that a portion will go to charity. It's such a positive way to raise money for good causes. Everyone wins." If you'd like to take her up on her offer, send your full name and a list of your former addresses to rochelle@cmiiw.com. You, too, may be a winner.

Nu, tachles. It was time to try it out. I typed in "ESRA", but perhaps not surprisingly, considering that the search was for money in North America, there was no result. Then I tried my name and that of some of my relatives – nothing.  But there, under the name of my brother-in-law, (assuming there is no one else with his name in Newton, MA), was a forgotten bank account, containing the sum of more than $100. I can't wait to tell him – and suggest a donation to ESRA when he claims his unexpected "lotto" prize.


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Carol Novis

Carol was born in Winnipeg, Canada and after university, worked for the Canadian government in Ottawa and then London, England. She came to live in Israel in 1976. Most of her career has been spent...

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