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Question: My wife was contacted by a firm called Keane Tracers that told her my mother-in-law, who passed away in 2001, has a mutual fund worth $14,000. For 25% of that amount, Keane will do the paperwork to get us the money; for 15% it will tell us where the money is so we can recover it ourselves. Then the company sent us a contract quoting 35% for full recovery and 25% to do it ourselves. Either way, the fees seem high. What should we do? - Robert Chaplow, Chester, Va.

Answer: It's true that more than $33 billion in unclaimed assets are floating around in forgotten bank accounts, old 401(k)s and dormant brokerage accounts. But scammers frequently make bogus inheritance claims, offering to "recover" nonexistent assets for an up-front fee. Once you pay, the con skedaddles. So never respond to an offer like this before checking it out with the Better Business Bureau and your state attorney general's office.

I did the legwork on Keane and found that it's legit. Financial services firms are required by law to make a good-faith effort to find the owners of their assets, so they hire firms like Keane to track owners down. If they can't, the assets must be turned over to the state after about three to five years, where owners or heirs can claim them.

Your cheapest move is to bypass Keane and wait to collect the money from the state (probably Ohio, because that's where your mother-in-law lived for most of her life). Periodically check MissingMoney.com, a site that links 40 states' unclaimed-property programs and connects to all states' unclaimed-assets divisions. You'll have to prove you are the rightful heirs and pay an administrative fee of no more than 5% in most states, says Stephen Larson, president of the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators.

But paying Keane might be worth it to you to save time and hassle - especially because there's no guarantee you'll be able to find the money on your own. If you use the company, though, at least you should get the lower rate. I called Keane vice president David McCrystal to say so. He apologized, blamed a computer glitch and agreed to honor the original offer.

Tip: Most asset recovery firms' rates are negotiable, with fees ranging from 10% to 35%, depending on the asset's worth (the more valuable, the lower the rate) and how complicated it is to recover. Never pay in advance.

So far Money Helps has saved readers $192,314.03

Having a financial nightmare? E-mail Donna Rosato at money_helps@moneymail.com.