NEW YORK (AP) -- When was the last time you looked at the U.S. savings bond your aunt gave you for your fifth birthday? Or the bonds you bought when your first child was born to help pay for college costs?
Apparently the answer for a lot of Americans is, not in a long, long while.
The U.S. Treasury says that out there somewhere -- in safe deposit boxes, filing cabinets and the bottoms of desk drawers -- are some 25 million bonds worth $9.4 billion that have matured and are no longer earning interest.
While that's just a small fraction of the $185 billion in outstanding savings bonds, it represents potentially big losses for the bond holders.
Daniel J. Pederson, the author of ''Savings Bonds: When to Hold, When to Fold and Everything In-Between,'' estimates Americans have lost nearly $2.1 billion in interest since 1990 by failing to cash in matured bonds, including Series E, H, HH and the Vietnam-era investments known as savings notes.
''It's the equivalent of burying your money in the back yard, because you're no longer getting interest,'' Pederson said. ''You're essentially making an interest-free loan to the government.''
The Treasury, which issues savings bonds, is aware of the problem and in recent years has begun posting the dates of matured bonds on the Web at www.savingsbonds.gov. Since 1999, it also has been trying to contact some savers who hold matured bonds, spokesman Peter Hollenbach said.
''When we did locate them, 98 percent said they had the bonds or knew where they were,'' Hollenbach said. ''Many did not realize they had stopped earning interest. Others said, 'I don't need the money or I don't want to pay taxes.'''
In fact, taxes technically are due on bonds when they are cashed or mature, but the IRS has not had a history of penalizing people who missed maturity dates.
Some of the bonds are lost or no longer exist, Hollenbach said, explaining: ''There were people who participated in 'bond fires' during World War II to make their investments gifts to the country.''
The bonds that savers should look to cash in are:
-- Series E issued between May 1941 and June 1962, and between December 1965 and June 1972;
-- Series H issued from June 1952 through June 1972;
-- Series HH issued between January 1980 and June 1982;
-- Savings notes, also known as Freedom Shares, issued from May 1967 through October 1970.
The issue date is at the top right hand corner of a savings bond.
In most cases, a matured bond must be redeemed for cash, either through the Treasury or at banks and other financial institutions that handle bonds.
''If they're not more than one year past final maturity, they can be exchanged for Series HH bonds, which currently earn 4 percent (interest) a year,'' said Jack Quinn, chief executive of U.S. Savings Bond Consultants in Wall Township, N.J. That gets savers an additional 20 years of tax-deferred growth.
Quinn said people who find they have a lot of maturing bonds -- some of which can be worth eight or nine times their original value -- should consider cashing them in over several years to minimize the tax bite. Savings bond earnings are subject to federal tax, but exempt from state and local taxes.
Bond adviser Pederson believes the Treasury should do more to inform people that their bonds are maturing.
''They're not reaching many people,'' he said. ''And it's often elderly Americans who could really use the money.''
He said savers who attend his seminars typically discover an average of $1,800 in bonds that have stopped earning interest -- an amount he describes as funds for ''going to see your grandkids for two extra weeks in the summer.''
Until some automatic notification system is put in place, Pederson said, Americans should check their savings bond holdings at least once a year.
Pederson's site: www.bondhelp.com
Quinn's site: www.savingsbonds.com
U.S. Treasury's savings bond site: www.publicdebt.treas.gov/sav/sav.htm
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