As founder and president of Missing Heirs International, Roth, 62, is hired by lawyers, executors, estate administrators and corporations to track down the missing owners of money in limbo. "It's not easy," he says. "I start where a person was born, try to locate his parents, find out where he lived and when. Then I look for birth certificates, marriage records, naturalization and immigration papers—anything that can link a person to a certain place at a certain time."
The rich, Roth has found, are not always the ones who get richer. "Most of the people we find are not upper-class," he says. "They are average people left money by someone who was secretive about his affairs and didn't make a will. I've uncovered large amounts for people who ostensibly had nothing—beggars."
Curiously, the heirs Roth discovers are not always grateful. "I've had people hang up on me, refuse to let me in their houses, and attack me with knives," he says. One woman had $25,000 coming to her, but refused to accept it on the advice of her astrologer. A West Indian who described herself as a witch was disappointed with the size of her inheritance, and went to Roth's Manhattan office to put a hex on him. "She trundled in a can of incense, a dead cat in a flour sack and some hatpins," Roth recalls. "Three weeks later she was killed in an auto accident."
Married, with two children, Roth is a native New Yorker who grew up idolizing Clarence Darrow. Later he worked as a legal assistant and became fascinated with investigative techniques. After two years as a merchant seaman he started but did not finish law school and formed Missing Heirs in 1940. After Pearl Harbor he joined the Army Air Corps and served as a military policeman. "I wanted to be a spy," he recalls glumly, "but they wouldn't let me, because my mother was born in Budapest." Since returning to the business of sleuthing, he has become an author (Is There a Fortune Waiting for You?) who dreams of making a movie about his most challenging cases.
His most frustrating case by far involved a $7 million inheritance. Roth found the heir, an executive living comfortably in Iowa. But when the man discovered that taking the money would require him to acknowledge publicly the fact that he was illegitimate, he refused to accept it. Inasmuch as Roth's finder's fee is 50 percent of all money turned over, he finds such compunctions more than mildly annoying. How does he justify such a hefty piece of the action? "Without me," he declares, "no one would get any money at all. Banks, governments and big businesses barely lift a finger to find the rightful owners."
Not since the days of television's The Millionaire has there been a man so anxious to part with his money. "I've given millions of dollars away to thousands of people," says Ted Roth, and he is convinced there are billions more where that came from. The money isn't his, exactly. Most of it is held by the states—fortunes of all sizes in stocks, bonds, unclaimed savings accounts, trusts and insurance benefits. New York alone has $499 million in abandoned property.