To skip town without paying is a cliche. To skip town without getting paid is another story, one three companies on lower Broadway like to tell.

Unlike their counterparts who pursue debtors to make them ante up, these tracers of missing persons search out stockholders, insurance beneficiaries and bank account holders in order to return assets to their rightful owners. They also seek out those who forget to use gift certificates, cash paychecks, and who leave airline tickets unused and utility deposits unclaimed. All this amounts to perhaps billions of dollars left in limbo.

Financially strapped state governments have become increasingly aware of these funds and most have begun vigorously enforcing laws under which unclaimed assets become the property of the state after a certain number of years. For example, in 32 years the state of New York collected a total of $270 million by such claims. The year after the Uniform Disposition of Unclaimed Property Act was passed, the N.Y. government collected $127 million. The District of Columbia, one of the last hold-outs, just began such action this year.

Corporations, which once used abandoned assets for their own purposes, are now obliged by law to provide information on their owners, and in some cases make the assets themselves available to the states.

In these days of shareholder activism it makes public relations sense for businesses to try to locate their vanished customers before the money devolves to the state. However, most companies are not equipped to do detailed searches themselves. Consequently the tracer of missing persons has acquired a new importance.

Harry Evons, president of Markham Co., the largest of the tracing firms, boasts the company has restored more than $25 million to more than 50,000 persons in the past 20 years.

It claims a 70 percent success record in finding missing persons. The search can take a few hours or weeks or even up to seven years. The average amount recovered is about $600, but it has reached as much as $200,000 in a single case. Markham took six years to find and turn over to a person in London $150,000, the value of stock the grandfather had purchased at the turn of the century for $2,000. The company has spent nearly seven years trying to find a man in the People's Republic of China who bought stock in the United States in the 1940s. The man is now a millionaire, at least on paper.

The reason Markham literally goes to the ends of the earth to find rightful owners is that it charges a percentage of the recovery. Usually before the source of funds is identified the owner is asked to sign away a portion of them, ranging up to 50 percent, with 25 percent to 30 percent the average. Where the amount is under $150, the fee is nothing.

Businesses with funds to give away are delighted to do so without cost to themselves. Markham's 2,000 clients include prestigious names like General Mills, Hilton Hotels, Citicorp., Dun & Bradstreet, Southern Pacific and Xerox.

Yet Markham's two top competitors believe it is unethical to charge recipients a percentage of what is rightfully theirs.

Alexander Miller, president of Shareholders Communications Corp. and a former associate of Ralph Nader, says he believes it is good public relations for corporations to locate such persons and pay for it themselves. Sixty of the Fortune 500 and other companies -- some of them also Markham clients -- pay SCC $1 million a year to do just that. The main difference is that SCC does not usually work on cases older than three years or on funds already escheated to the state, although Miller once agreed to trace Chicago cab drivers who were given shares of Checker Motors back in the 1920s. "It was a lot of fun," he recalled.

Between 60 percent and 75 percent of SCC's work is tracing. Besides finding owners of unclaimed assets, SCC specializes in locating shareholders to vote in proxy fights and beneficiaries in class action suits and fraud cases. When a company decides to buy back the stock because the account is uneconomical, SCC scouts stockholders who have not turned in their shares after a merger, or if the stockholders have fewer than 100 shares.

SCC has sought stockholders with warrants or stock offers about to expire. It once located by radio phone a California doctor on vacation on a ship off Java in order to save him $10,500, only to find he had left the necessary papers with his lawyer one block away from SCC.

For his diligence in reading the black-bordered financial notices in newspapers that require a response from stockholders, as well as his work in chasing heirs, Miller has earned the nickname of "Tombstone Al." Miller says he unearths his man or woman about 60 percent of the time. That amounts to 50,000 corrections a year.

Typically the first 30 percent can be found in two or three days. Another 30 percent in six weeks. The rest are "toughies" that are rarely found, he says.

On a typical project SCC's fee is $4,000 to $5,000. That works out to $17.50 per person found, plus an initial fee and expenses. But in the case of proxy fights where time also is a factor the fee can run as high as $30,000. o

Scc doesn't have field investigators nor use of information from tax bureaus or police records. "That would be an abuse of the system," said Miller. "We're not private investigators."

One who does not hesitate to use all available sources is Edward R. Goldfader, who heads Tracers, founded in 1924. As suave as Markham's Evons -- a former Arthur Murray franchise owner -- and as enterprising as Miller -- a former marketing and public relations man -- appear, Goldfader just seems tough. Seated behind a metal desk in a small Spartan office, he talks not about the joy of finding windfals for unsuspecting people, but about the venality of bank executives who for kickbacks try to sell searchers lists of missing persons.

Goldfader, whose fees are competitive with Miller's, said that Tracers has cut back on locating missing stockholders because it could not compete with Markham. Now Tracers is working on other projects such as bringing together adoptees and their natural parents from whom they have been separated for many years, as well as criminal, divorce and unemployment check cases.

Still Tracers boasts the best record of the three, 80 percent, when it comes to finding people. The firm once located a man in a squatter's shack in Florida. He had pasted what he thought was a worthless stock certificate on the wall. When it wouldn't come off Tracers took out the wall, returned it to the corporation and recovered $8,000 for the man. Another case involved finding a retired school teacher who bought 1,000 shares of Metals and Controls Corp. for $4,000 years ago. When United Technologies acquired it at $256 a share the woman received a quarter of a million dollars.

Besides his years of experience and access to private sources, Goldfader credits his success to his reference library that includes 20,000 telephone books. SCC, a relative newcomer with a dozen years experience, has only 4,000 or 5,000 phone books. Despite their different philosophies and fee schedules, all three tracing companies have a common method of operation based on the telephone. Banks of staffers spend all day checking phone and address directories, calling all the William J. Smiths in the book, and cross-checking with neighbors at 124 and 128 Main St. to find out where the Smiths of 126 moved to.

Once the rightful owner is located some of the companies get in touch by mail. SCC prefers to telephone them. So every night part-time workers, who are often out-of-work actors, surprise people and try to convince them there really is a windfall awaiting them. Miller's phone bill is $75,000 a year. Despite all these efforts it is estimated only 10 percent to 15 percent of abandoned property is ever claimed by its rightful owners.