RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - If a government agency owes you money, what does it really take to get it?
There are companies out there willing to help you answer that question, but it may cost you. You could be bombarded by companies offering to give you information or help you track that money down.
That's all good and fine as long as you know what the company will do to earn its fee - but that fee may be money you don't need to be paying.
Homeowner Michael Paulus believes he was cheated out of his money when a company offered to help him track down a refund he was owed.
"On a postcard I got, nowhere, anywhere on this post card did it say this had to do with my property taxes. It just said funds have been located in your name, generically, and they wouldn't tell me anything over the phone. If I called, they said you have to come in with an ID. They were very cloak and dagger about it," said Paulus.
Paulus went to the company and was asked to show ID and sign some forms.
Before he realized it, he'd given that company permission to not only find the money, but to keep the entire amount as a fee.
"These companies are raking in thousands of dollars doing this, and it's completely legal. It's just unethical."
Some government officials agree with Paulus.
Companies will scour public records online looking for unclaimed refunds - for example, if a property tax value is lowered, and there's money waiting for the homeowner.
"People can always get their money back from the government themselves without paying for it," said tax assessor Betsy Price.
In Virginia, the treasury department has an office devoted to handling unclaimed property and money. In most cases, if you're owed something, you can find it and get yourself.
Easily, quickly, and for free.
"Ideally, we would hope that everyone would call us or call the appraisal district if it's a value issue or an exemption issue before they deal with anybody else," said Price.
Michael Paulus eventually got his money back. But he said it took a year of wrangling and appearances in small claims court.
Many taxing authorities say they will let you know when they owe you money and you likely won't have to pay to get it.
You can search for yourself in Virginia's unclaimed property records by going to www.vamoneysearch.org.