Billions are sitting in dormant bank and building society accounts waiting to be claimed.
Detective work: Hunting down lost assets could prove fruitful
But be warned, the Government is on to this and there are plans afoot to release some of this money to fund youth and community projects.
While banks and building societies periodically clear their books of dormant accounts, there are still many with relatively meagre amounts in them.
There are also a lot of building society accounts dating back ten years or more when there was a trend of opening accounts with £100 in the hope that the society would become a bank and give a conversion windfall.
Banks and building societies usually treat an account as 'lost' if there have been no transactions by you on the account for three years. After this time, it will write to you asking if you want to keep the account open. If you don't reply, the account will be treated as 'lost' although the money in it will remain yours.
If you want to claim a lost account, then you need to complete a form - you can get one from the Building Societies Association at www.bsa.org.uk (020 7437 0655) or the British Bankers' Association at www.bba.org.uk (020 7216 8909). If you know which society or bank the account was with, then you send the form to its head office, otherwise it goes to the BSA or BBA. For societies that have become banks - such as Halifax and Woolwich - go to the BBA.
Thousands of people die every year without filling out a will, known as dying intestate. If beneficiaries are not found, the sum goes to the Treasury.
If you know of a relative who has died in the past 30 years and may have left behind unclaimed assets, you can try to track them down using the Government's Treasury solicitor, all unclaimed inheritances pass through its hands each year, or a private firm. However, the former is free, while the latter take a cut of anything between 25-40% from recovered funds.
Your first port of call should be the Treasury Solicitor and its 'Bona Vacantia' website; Bona Vacantia literally means vacant goods and is the legal name for ownerless property.
Here you can check the names of those who passed away and left unclaimed assets going back to 1997. Relatives have 12 years to come forward to claim their inheritance. The ultimate deadline is 30 years but this is at the discretion of the Treasury Solicitor and it will not pay interest for the final 18 years.
If you want to research the estate of a relative who passed away before 1997, contact the Treasury Solicitor through its website or via letter, giving any details you have (if you do not have their married name for instance, either their maiden name, date-of-birth or general address may work). However, you will need some information on a specific relative; general punts on 'can you see if my extended family has any unclaimed assets?' will not work.
Otherwise you could go to a genealogist firm, which will research your history if they think you have a case, but take a cut out of the funds recovered. A contract is signed before details of the deceased is given.
Fraser & Fraser is the biggest firm of genealogists in the UK and features in the BBC programme Heir Hunters.
There is a quite a bit of cash up for grabs, although most payouts are less than £10,000. The Treasury Solicitor dealt with just over 12,000 cases in 2009, paying out £6.2m in 'kin payments' and adding £10m of unclaimed assets to its coffers.
In the past few decades, starting with Abbey National in 1989 up to Standard Life in 2006, nine building societies and insurers have demutualised and listed on the stock exchange, issuing shares to qualifying customers.
Under the rules governing former building societies, unclaimed shares can be sold three years after flotation - but customers who can prove they should have received shares then have a further nine years to claim the proceeds.
While this time is long passed for the likes of Abbey and Alliance & Leicester, there is still time to claim the cash for Friends Provident and Standard Life (shares can be claimed up until 2016 in the case of the latter).
In all cases, you will have to make sure you fulfilled the qualification criteria first.
• Friends Provident. Converted July 2001. Minimum 200 shares to its qualifying customers. www.friendsprovident.co.uk
• Standard Life. Converted July 2006. Minimum 185 shares to its qualifying customers. www.standardlife.co.uk
National Savings & Premium Bonds
There is £30m sitting in unclaimed Premium Bond prizes, some dating back almost 50 years.
The largest unclaimed prize is for £25,000, dating back to a draw in 1991. Check to see if you've missed a prize on the National Savings & Investments website (www.nsandi.com) or by phoning 0845 9645000.
National Savings has its own tracing service if you think you might have lost any of its bonds, certificates or accounts. In the last five years it has reunited 36,000 with £35m in missing savings.
More than a third of this has been in missing savings certificates - £13.6m reunited with 1,400 savers – but it has also traced £11m in previously forgotten Premium Bonds.
The same number and website can be used for tracing these as for lost Premium Bonds.
Today's frenetic lifestyle means few of us stay in the same job for years. As a result, there are a lot of lost pensions out there – it is estimated by the Unclaimed Assets Register that more than £3bn is there to be claimed in missing pensions. The Government's Pension Service - part of the Department for Work and Pensions - has details of more than 200,000 occupational and personal pension schemes.
You can write to it at: Pension Tracing Service, Tyneview Park, Whitley Road, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, NE98 1BA, go online atwww.thepensionservice.gov.uk or call 0845 6002 537.
However, you will need some details such as the name and address of your former employer, the type of scheme (ie, occupational or personal) and when you belonged to it.
For personal pensions you will need the name of the scheme and the insurer which ran it. In both cases, you will be provided with an address and contact to write to. If you don't have these details, you could pay the Unclaimed Assets Register (www.uar.co.uk) to do the work for you.
It will charge £18 per search and it can also look for other investments including life policies.
If you come across an old share certificate, how do you check whether it's worth anything? Your first action should be to check whether the company still exists. You can do this by going to the Companies House website (www.companieshouse.gov.uk) which should give you an address for the company.
If the company does still exist, write to the company secretary and ask for the name and address of its registrars: they look after a company's share register. You then need to contact the registrar to make sure you are on the list of shareholders.
This of course becomes far more complicated if your company has been taken over or the shares delisted (perhaps it has been bought back and become a private company) or gone under.
Don't get your hopes up if you find an ancient share certificate claiming to be for shares in, say, Siberian Railways. The chance is that it will be of interest only to collectors of such things - the name for such a hobby is scripophily.
If you have an old policy with an insurance company long since disappeared from view, you can track down the company through the Association of British Insurers (020 7600 3333 or www.abi.org.uk).
Bear in mind that many 'penny' policies - the sort that were sold door-to-door with tiny premiums - are unlikely to be worth much except for sentimental reasons. In addition, policies might have been cashed in years earlier, although this might not be clear from the policy documents.
Insurance companies do not keep details of plans going back decades - so don't expect a fortune from your discovery. The Unclaimed Assets Register can be used if you don't have documentation or just scanty details.
If you have an old unit trust certificate, then you can find the company by contacting the Investment Management Association (020 7831 0898).
There have been numerous takeovers and renamings of unit trusts over the years - the IMA can tell you where your fund is now. For example, MIM Britannia is now Invesco Perpetual and Vanbrugh was subsumed into the Prudential.
A new £20 note was issued in 2007, with the current Elgar note being gradually replaced by one featuring Adam Smith.
Since 1980, 12 notes have been issued and withdrawn by the Bank of England. While banks, building societies and the Post Office might take recently withdrawn notes or exchange them for new ones, they are not obliged to do so.
However, the Bank of England will always pay face value on notes it issues. You can do this by post or in person at the Bank of England in the City of London (Monday to Friday, 9.30am to 3pm). More details are at www.bankofengland.co.uk/ banknotes/about/exchanges.htm
Damaged notes will have to be sent to the Bank of England's cash centre in Leeds - you can get details atwww.bankofengland.co.uk/banknotes/damaged_banknotes The inquiry line is on 0113 244 1711. Coins are dealt with by the Royal Mint - its helpdesk is on 01443 222111.