WASHINGTON -- The government is hunting for some 7,200 Americans. It's scouring Social Security records. Checking credit bureaus. Even putting out the word on the Internet.
Not to worry. It's good news.
The missing Americans are owed anywhere from a few dollars to more than $100,000 in unclaimed pension money from long-forgotten employers.
Eighteen months after the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. began an expanded effort to locate such people through the Internet, the federal entity that ensures pensions has already found nearly 1,400 who were owed more than $4 million from former employers' now-closed pension plans.
The news often catches people by surprise.
"I just came home one day and found a letter in the mail," said Carol Carson, a legal secretary in Atlanta who found out recently she was owed $1,500 from the pension fund of a New York law firm where she worked a decade ago.
"I just looked at it as new found money because I had never suspected that I even had it coming," she said. Carson put the money into the retirement program at the firm where she currently works.
So far, lost pensioners have been found in 40 states, with California being the biggest beneficiary with 309. New York had 113 and Pennsylvania and Illinois had 87 each.
Despite the success, there are still 7,179 Americans -- California leads the list with about 1,597 -- owed about $13 million that PBGC continues to search for.
In hopes of assisting the search, the agency has placed the entire list on its Internet so people can look up their names.
"By searching the Pension Search Directory on the Internet, hundreds of people have received millions of dollars in lost pensions," Labor Secretary Alexis M. Herman said.
If people locate their name on the Web site, they can call a toll-free number or send an Internet E-mail and provide additional information to the pension agency to verify their identity. The process takes about four to six weeks, and after an identity is verified, a check is usually in the mail within two months, the agency says.
So how can so many people not know they're owed pension money?
"The vast majority of workers receive their full pension, but sometimes people move and forget to inform past employers of their new address," agency executive director David M. Strauss explained.
The PBGC was created as a federal corporation nearly a quarter century ago to guarantee pension benefits. It currently covers some 42 million workers and retirees participating in about 45,000 private-sector pension funds that are federally insured.
The agency gets no tax dollars, operating instead on the insurance premiums paid by companies and its own investments.
For years, the PBGC has looked for people owed benefits from underfunded pension plans the agency took over.
But in 1994, the pool of people it searched for increased markedly when the Retirement Protection Act was passed and gave the agency the added job of helping companies which closed pension plans and couldn't locate former employees. A new search system that brought the Internet into the effort was started in late 1996.
When the effort started, there were fewer than 3,000 people on the list. Today, that number has more than doubled.
Anita Varner, a PBGC employee who helps oversee the search efforts, estimated about 30 percent of the people the agency recently has located found themselves on the Internet.
But the agency doesn't stop there. It does its own sleuthing, checking with the Social Security Administration, the Internal Revenue Service, credit bureaus and former colleagues in hopes of finding where former workers have gone.
Varner said she recently tracked down one person in Buenos Aires, Argentina who was owed $33,000. Another one she contacted turned the tables on her.
"I had one man who called and told me I could keep his money," she said.. "I said, 'Excuse me?' And he said, 'You can keep it.' And I said, 'Well, sir it is your money.' And he said, "Yeah, but you can keep that $1.50 I'm owed."
The address of the Web site is http://search.pbgc.gov on the Internet.