When his brother in Fort Lauderdale received a letter from the "Unclaimed Asset Bureau" recently, George Moquin thought it sounded like a scam. The sender listed a Washington address, but no telephone number, no e-mail address and no Web site. And there was no such listing in the telephone directory.

"The letter basically suggests that he might have unclaimed assets," said Moquin. "To find out, he must fill out a form, including such items as Social Security number, and send a $21.50 processing fee."

State treasury offices are in fact, holding hundreds of millions of dollars, maybe billions, in unclaimed assets. Originating from dormant savings accounts, forgotten utility deposits, left-behind safe deposit box contents, probate court judgments, undelivered insurance benefits and elsewhere, these funds range from a few dollars per claim to sometimes thousands. The money typically is abandoned after an address or name change, or it falls between the cracks of a divorce or death.

By law, each state has a department or office dedicated to alerting claimants to unclaimed or abandoned money, property and other assets, and to assisting people in discovering if they are owed unclaimed assets.

The nonprofit National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators (NAUPA) and the Better Business Bureau have issued warnings about suspected frauds by groups with names such as Unclaimed Assets Inc. or National Assets Recovery. These groups have mailed postcards to millions of unsuspecting people, often senior citizens, telling them that for a nominal fee, "they can obtain information on how to obtain their property," the NAUPA caveat states. "What the citizen doesn't realize," says the warning, "is that for their money, they won't receive information telling them how much or even verify whether they are entitled to unclaimed property."

Instead, the duped individual usually receives general instructions on how to contact the states and possibly how to file a claim--basic information that is free and readily available. Legitimate unclaimed assets "finders" or "tracers," as professionals are called, will provide details and exact amounts owed a client, and propose to recover the money for a specific percentage (usually 10 percent to 25 percent). Those percentages should be negotiable, and reputable finders never require prepaid fees.

But you don't have to pay to find out if you are owed unclaimed assets. All state unclaimed asset offices provide assistance by phone (though claims usually must be made on specific forms); and most now have Web sites where anyone can search his name or those of relatives. Even portal Web sites, such as Yahoo and others, now hot link to these databases. In fact, the ease of such searches, together with the public's lack of awareness of unclaimed assets, is partly responsible for an increase in both legitimate finders and scammers.

A helpful Web site in beginning a search is "The Unclaimed Property Page" (http://www.kantrowitz.com/kantrowitz/uncl-prop.html), which provides the address and telephone numbers of every state's unclaimed property office, and hot links to the searchable Web pages of those states that have them. The site also provides information and hot links to other unclaimed asset centers, from the National Credit Union Administration Unclaimed Property site to the Prudential Unclaimed Insurance Proceeds Locator. Those without Internet access can contact the states' unclaimed property offices directly for assistance.