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If You Find It, Can You Really Keep It?

By Cynthia Hsu, Esq. | Last updated on

"Finders keepers, losers weepers" is a taunt that many American children have grown up with. But is it really the case that if you find it, you own it?

A recent incident shed some light on the issue of found-property laws: A "lost" prototype iPhone created quite a stir in California. It also netted criminal charges for the two men who found the phone, Brian Hogan and Sage Wallower.

The two were charged under a California statute. The law read that those who have knowledge of who the true owner of the property is need to take certain proactive steps. They must make reasonable efforts to return the property.

For the two Californians, it's likely they should have known that Apple owned the iPhone prototype. As a result, they should have tried to contact the company to return the property. If they did, they might have avoided criminal charges.

These types of laws are actually on the books of many different states. About 20 jurisdictions currently address what you should do if you find lost property.

In some states, if you come across lost property you need to hand it over to local authorities. Sometimes you may need to publish its discovery in a local newspaper. Then you must wait a certain time period, according to the laws where you live, before you can claim the property as yours.

If you violate these statutes you may end up facing criminal charges, including theft.

So before you proclaim "finders keepers," you might want to take a breather. You may want to look up relevant found-property statutes to make sure you're not accidentally breaking the law.

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