Answered by Shaykh Faraz Rabbani
What if as a child and or after the age of puberty an individual stole goods from a shop of which numerous owners have come and gone since then. What should the individual do if he is unable to reach the owners of the shop from that time? what is the ruling on this?
The Shariah obligation is to return the money to its owners. Wherever possible, the actual money has to be returned to them. However, when, after concerted effort, one is simply unable to find the person, then one is religiously obliged to give the amount in charity (sadaqa), to those charity may be given to [=those considered poor or needy in the Shariah], but ONLY with the intention of giving the reward to it owners and to clear one’s due, NOT for personal reward. This way, even though one was not able to get the actual money to its owners, one tried to get its benefit to them through the charity. This is only allowed, however, if one cannot find the person the money is owed to. [Mentioned by Ibn Abidin in his Hashiya, and by Mufti Rasheed Ahmad in Ahsan al-Fatawa, and also in the Fatawa al-Hindiyya.]