A letter received by Judy Damico from something called the U.S. Claims Services said that "private investigators" had located $398 that the insurance giant WellPoint had unsuccessfully tried to refund to her.
For a fee of $38.95, the official-sounding U.S. Claims Services said, it would obtain the money from a mysterious "third-party escrow account" that apparently only its financial detectives could locate.
Jacob Roper, a spokesman for California Controller John Chiang, laughed when I shared the part about the escrow account.
"We're that third-party escrow account," Roper said. "And we'll give her the money for free."
One of the jobs of the controller's office is to collect unclaimed money and property and make it available to the rightful owner.
I've written before about companies like U.S. Claims Services that scour public databases in search of so-called escheated funds — money that's gone unclaimed — and then charge a commission to serve as go-between in getting the cash.
But you have to admire the chutzpah of U.S. Claims Services in attempting to pass off the controller's easily accessed, free-of-charge online database as a "third-party escrow account" — as if tracking down the money required the financial savvy of a forensic accountant.
Damico, 70, forwarded me the company's letter because she wasn't sure what to make of it. If it was legitimate, the Whittier resident said, she wouldn't hesitate to pay $38.95 for $398 in long-lost funds.
"I don't think this was sent by a state agency," Damico said. "But it's hard to tell."
That seems deliberate. U.S. Claims Services, based in Bakersfield, never claims official status but it prominently declares that it's "licensed and regulated" by the California secretary of state.
"The secretary of state's office does not license businesses, and we are not a regulatory agency," said Shannan Velayas, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State Debra Bowen. "We are a filing agency."
I ran a search of business licenses on file with the secretary of state's office. Guess what? There was no listing for U.S. Claims Services.
The California business entity number on U.S. Claims Services' website showed that the company's true name is New Concepts Development Inc., which did turn up in the secretary of state's records.
Among various other businesses also claiming the same Bakersfield address was National Claims Recovery Services and MyMoneyMonitor.
A fellow named Aaron Hashim runs all these companies. He told me he operates under different business names in different states.
"We got into it to help people recover money they didn't know about," he said. "We get thousands of thank-you letters."
Chatting with Hashim, you get the sense he believes he's performing a public service and not merely cutting himself in for a piece of other people's cash.
"A lot of people are glad we spend the time and money to track them down," he said.
That may be true, but it doesn't excuse false or misleading marketing tactics. Hashim acknowledged that many people pay a fee to his companies because they have no idea they often can get their money themselves for free.