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Blog: Paper Doll, Tackling The Stacks And Piles
Lost And Found: A Different Kind of Stock (Certificate) Tip

Have you thought of selling some stocks to use as a down payment on a house? Maybe a creative relative bought you shares of IBM or Apple when you got your college degree in computer science, but those stock choices don't fit your investment strategy? Or, perhaps talk of a recession is making you consider an investment you perceive to be a lower-risk?

If you're thinking of selling stocks, the first thing you need to do is locate your stock certificates. Ask yourself:

  • Am I CERTAIN I was issued a stock certificate in the first place?
  • Am I sure I didn't return the certificate to the brokerage for safekeeping?
  • Where, oh where can my certificates be?
When you acquire stock (via purchase or gift), there are three different ways you can own or "hold" the stock:

1) Pretty stock certificates, suitable for framing, kept in your possession
If someone bought the stock for you as a gift, he or she probably opted for the nifty engraved certificates. If you are sure you received these certificates, check the following places for the actual stock certificates, photocopies of the certificates and/or records of the certificate numbers:
  • Your safe deposit box or fireproof safe
  • Your parents' safe deposit box or fireproof safe
  • That box of framed photos, diplomas and other certificates your parents handed off to you when you finally moved into a home of your own
  • Under the beds
  • In your filing cabinets
2) Pretty stock certificates embossed with your name that you sent back for safekeeping
Is it possible that instead of holding on to them, you followed the advice of a parent, attorney or other kindly soul who had you return the certificate to your stockbroker for safekeeping? (This was much more common prior to the 1980s and the widespread use of computers.) If you're fuzzy on whether you were actually issued certificates, call your brokerage house or transfer agent to verify if they might be maintaining your certificates for you.

3) No stock certificates
Just because you receive quarterly notices of your reinvested dividends or stock activity doesn't mean you have (or should have) certificates, merely that you own stock. This third way of holding stock is having it registered in a street name (unrelated to Huggy Bear on Starsky & Hutch) or book entry form.

The paperless office is a fantasy, but computers make it easier for stockbrokers to maintain the investment data without warehousing stock certificates. Indeed, discount brokers charge extra just to have the corporation in which you're investing actually issue a stock certificate. Instead, the broker will issue your stock in street name, which means it's registered in the brokerage house's name (but the value of your individual shares are traceable digitally via computer), or, as is becoming increasingly common with direct (re)investment stock plans, stocks are held in your name, but digitally, without certificates, in book entry form.

If you were worried about not being able to find your certificates, I bet you're really hoping that your stocks are held in street name or book entry form, aren't you?

For reference, with stocks held in street name or book entry form, you've got no certificates to lose, and you can sell your stocks whenever you want, without worrying about transferring certificates, because your information is all held electronically. (Whether it's wise to sell on a whim is another issue entirely.)

Also, if anything fun or funky goes on with your stock, you won't be burdened by having to return your certificates and have new ones issued. Recently, a stock I own split three-for-one. That didn't triple the value of what I own (at least not immediately). I now own three times as many shares; initially, they were each at one-third the original price, but as they grow (knock wood), my value increases. But I didn't have to fuss with certificates, because my shares are held in book entry form.

Usually, the only drawback to having no pretty certificates to hang on your wall is aesthetic. (Of course, you could always take a high resolution picture and then return the certificates to the brokerage, requesting transfer to book entry form.) However, there's an outside chance of difficulty if you:
  • Lose your your account and certificate numbers, and
  • Change your name (for marriage, to become a Hollywood star or to go on the lam from the law) without notifying your brokerage company or transfer agent, and
  • Move but forgot to notify the brokerage company or transfer agent.
If the certificates were the only proof of ownership, and you lost the numbers and any way for the brokerage company to find or identify you, not having certificates would be a toughie. However, this confluence of events is really, really unlikely -- far less likely than you losing your certificates!

So, let's assume you DID actually receive a stock certificate at some point, didn't return it to your brokerage house for safekeeping, and can't find it in any of the likely (or unlikely) locations. If you believe it was lost, stolen, destroyed by fire, flood or spontaneous combustion, what can you do?

1) Gather whatever information you have (including photocopies of the certificates) regarding the original stock purchase, including:
  • Estimated date of stock purchase
  • Exact name you believe is embossed on the certificates
  • Name of purchaser, if different from above
  • Social Security number of owner
You'll also need to supply an affidavit of proof that the certificate has been lost or stolen.

2) Contact your brokerage house or the transfer agent of the company in which you invested. Common transfer agents, the names of which probably appear on your quarterly statements, are:

American Stock Transfer & Trust (800-937-5449)
ComputerShare (800-328-9033)
ShareOwnerOnline (877-602-7397)
Wells Fargo Investments (866-243-0931)

If you still can't find the information, ask your local librarian to help you search Standard & Poor's Corporation Records to find the transfer agent for any given stock.

3) Have your brokerage house or transfer agent issue a stop transfer against the missing "security" or stock. They'll report your certificate numbers to the Security and Exchange Commission's program for lost and stolen securities. This keeps someone from transferring the stock from your name to theirs. Of course, if you ever find the original certificate, be sure to notify whomever you placed the "stop transfer" with to remove it, or you'll never be able to sell your stock.

4) Buy an indemnity bond or surety bond (usually about 3% of the value of the stock). This is required in order to protect the company whose stock you own (and the transfer agent) against claims if an innocent purchaser of your certificate presents it for sale. Your transfer agent will recommend where to buy the bond.

The transfer agent will then reissue the stock certificate without further fuss. Yay!

In the future, if you purchase stock and decide to ignore Paper Doll's advice regarding keeping your purchase in street name or book entry form, please be sure to photocopy the fronts and backs of your stock certificates and maintain the copies and records of the certificate numbers separately from your actual certificates. For example, keep the certificates in your safe deposit box and the copies, including the certificate numbers, in your fireproof safe. If ever your stocks are sold or transferred erroneously, a transfer agent will be able to trace what happened via the certificate numbers.

As always, being organized will help you avert the inconvenience of lost time and money, two non- or not-very-renewable resources.

Note: I am not a financial planner, and more importantly, I'm am not YOUR financial planner. This post should not be taken as advice to sell your stocks out of fear of a recession. If Paper Doll were a stock market expert, she'd have enough money to be blogging about her weekend in George Clooney's Italian villa rather than paper clutter issues.

Experts point out that if we don't understand the stock market well, we should either stay out of individual stocks (sticking to mutual funds) or seek the help of professionals who understand what's going on. Sounds like good advice. I'm sure George Clooney would agree.

posted on: 2/5/2008 10:30:00 AM by Julie Bestry
category: Paper

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Paper Doll, Tackling The Stacks And Piles

by Julie Bestry

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