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Solving stock certificate mysteries takes sleuthing

Published August 17, 2003

Got an old stock certificate lying around the house or tucked away in a safe deposit box? These intriguing bits of paper often surface after a death when relatives sort through personal effects. The first question everyone asks is whether they are worth anything.

Usually the answer is "no," but there is always that outside possibility. Who can throw away a Lotto ticket without checking first to see if you won?

Solving stock mysteries takes leg work. You can try to do it yourself, and if you get stuck, you can pay someone to do it for you. You might locate a company just by tinkering with and other Internet search engines or by calling your stockbroker. If you cannot find the company, but you know the town where it once was located, you can turn detective, looking up state corporate records and calling local chambers of commerce, newspapers and libraries. Sometimes the reference desk of the public library in your town can help.

Maybe the company changed its name or merged with another company. Standard & Poor's says it has tracked more than 7,300 corporate name changes since 1979. Sometimes though, only the assets of the old company are acquired and the company itself, the one that issued your shares, goes out of business. Sometimes companies go through bankruptcy reorganization and cancel their old shares.

And sometimes there are even revolutions. One reader recently asked about his shares in Havana Racetrack, purchased in the early 1950s before Fidel Castro took control. "Will they ever be good?" he wanted to know.

I asked Pierre Bonneau, who runs Stock Search International, for an opinion:

"Even if Cuba were to become more America-friendly, there is little chance that companies that owned properties there would be able to claim them," he said. But Bonneau said that if the company also had assets outside Cuba, it might have survived and changed its name.

A stock certificate might be worthless as an investment but worth something as a collectible. Value depends on the artwork, age, historical significance, rarity and the popularity of the subject matter.

"Cuban stocks have interest because of the history, but something which is run-of-the-mill, just a name on the piece of paper, may be worth $10 to $15," Bonneau said. "Something which has nice graphics may be worth $50 or $100."

For information about research services and collectibles, call Stock Search ( toll-free at 1-800-537-4523 or ( toll-free at 1-888-786-2576. Research costs $40 to $85 per company.

If you hang onto a certificate, keep a note with it explaining what you know about the company's history and the stock's value or lack thereof. Your heirs will thank you.

Q. I own a small business, and I was surprised to find out what popped up on my credit reports. All three were different. Paying for credit monitoring wouldn't be bad if they gave you reports from all three credit bureaus for the fee, but you get only one. You have to buy the others! Ouch! Do you know of a monitoring service that covers all three bureaus for one fee?

Unfortunately not.

Using three services to monitor the three credit bureaus would be an expensive proposition. I suggest ordering a package of all three reports two or three times a year if this is a particular concern of yours. A less expensive alternative would be to order one report periodically. The first time you might order the report from Equifax, the second time from Experian, the third from TransUnion, then start the cycle over again.

Since credit reports and monitoring services cost money, your level of vigilance on this should bear some relationship to how concerned you are about this problem. If you have a reason to think someone may have stolen your identity or be trying to do so, you should monitor your account frequently. For some people, once a year is adequate.

Remember that checking your credit report does not stop identity theft. It only alerts you to the problem so you can get started trying to clean up your record.

- Helen Huntley writes about investing and markets for the Times. If you have a question about investments or personal finance, send it to On Money. We'll try to answer those we think are of greatest reader interest. All questions must be submitted in writing, but readers' names will not be published. Send questions to Helen Huntley, Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.

[Last modified August 17, 2003, 10:42:04]

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