An astonishing £20bn in lost funds, investments, savings and pensions are languishing with financial companies, waiting to be reclaimed by their rightful owners.
Family fortune: Steve Gough and his brother and sister shared £25,000
But the good news is that there are more options than ever to help reunite a person with unclaimed cash, even though some accounts have been dormant for 50 years.
Banks have beefed up their efforts to hunt for the owners of lost accounts, while commercial searching services have also improved.
Adrian Coles, director general of the Building Societies Association, says: 'There can be all sorts of reasons why an account is lost.
'But the good news is that there are more options than ever to help reunite a person with unclaimed cash, even though some accounts have been dormant for 50 years.
Banks have beefed up their efforts to hunt for the owners of lost accounts, while commercial searching services have also improved.Jo Buxton runs the Unclaimed Assets Register, a commercial tracing service run by credit reference agency Experian that looks mainly for lost pensions and investments.
She says: 'Both the customer and the product provider have a duty to keep in touch with each other. We'd like to see more companies providing data on their dormant funds so we can help customers search.'
Under legislation that recently came into force, a deposit account can be declared dormant and the balance given to charity if there is no contact from a customer for at least 15 years and the bank cannot trace them.
Coles says: 'Anything a customer does, such as visiting a branch, making a transaction or answering a letter, means an account will stay active.'
In advance of these changes many institutions have tried to reunite savers with their cash. Lloyds Banking Group, for example, has successfully tracked down the owners of more than £40m of dormant funds in the past few years.
At the other end of the scale, friendly society Engage Mutual has found the owners of more than £1.4m in dormant funds over the past 18 months.
One beneficiary is Steve Gough, 50. He was contacted last year after Engage traced him as the heir to savings policies left by his late parents, Audrey and William.
Steve, a social care support worker from Luton, Bedfordshire, says: 'Mum and dad set up two savings plans alongside a mortgage when they bought a house in the Eighties. Then they moved and must have forgotten about the investments.'
The couple died within six months of each other in 2000. Steve, his older brother, Billy, 55, and his sister, Sandra, 48, had no idea the savings existed.
The three were traced by Engage last year and were staggered to find they were together entitled to almost £25,000.
Steve, who is single, says: 'We were shocked and quite emotional, with a mixture of feelings. It would have been nice for my parents to have enjoyed their savings themselves, but it is also good to know that they had been working hard to provide for us all those years.'
There is no need to wait to be contacted by a financial organisation if you stumble across paperwork that triggers a memory of lost or forgotten savings. There are services designed to help reunite owners with their money.
Buxton says you need to provide as much information as possible, including previous addresses, any previous names and date of birth. 'The more detail you provide, the better the chances of getting a hit,' she says.
The best places to start your search include:
- The Building Societies Association, the British Bankers' Association and National Savings & Investments run a joint account tracing scheme. It uses one standard search form to check more than 90 different banks and building societies plus National Savings.
- Launched in 2008, the service has run more than 400,000 searches and uncovered £475m for customers. The service operates through the website mylostaccount.org.uk, which allows online searches. Those without internet access can submit a paper search request, using a form available in bank or building society branches.
- The Pension Tracing Service is a free helpline run by the Department for Work and Pensions. It helps reunite savers with workplace or personal pensions. Call 0845 6002 537 (or 44 191 215 4491 if calling from overseas). Or find more details at direct.gov.uk, searching for pension tracing.
- You will need to provide the name of either the company you worked for or the pension scheme itself. It will help to have your National Insurance number and if possible your address at the time you were employed.
- The Unclaimed Assets Register holds records of unclaimed shareholdings and share dividends, the proceeds of life insurance policies, some unit trusts and company pensions.
Full details of participating companies are listed on its website. The service was revamped last month with a fixed fee of £25 including VAT for each search.
The fee is charged regardless of whether or not any money is found. You can search online at uar.co.uk or call 0870 241 1713 and ask for a paper form to complete. Do not use this service to look for dormant bank accounts.
For a guide to claiming forgotten cash go to Track down lost money: shares, a policy or inheritance guide
The first money has started flowing into a special fund that will use the proceeds of forgotten bank accounts to help charities.
The Reclaim Fund will channel the money to The Big Lottery Fund, which will decide where it goes.
The Reclaim Fund, which is authorised by the Financial Services Authority, received its first payments from banks six weeks ago.
Adrian Smith, chief operating officer of the Reclaim Fund, says: 'We would like to be able to make our first distribution to The Big Lottery Fund in the late summer but that depends on how much and how quickly money comes in.
'It has been suggested that there could be as much as £400m from dormant accounts, and we could envisage perhaps a distribution of between £60m and £100m in our first year of operation.'
Crucially, the account holder or legal heirs retain an absolute right to any funds in a dormant account. If they come forward with proof of identity and ownership, they will be repaid in full out of the Reclaim Fund.
Smith says the fund has to keep a certain level of money in case account holders emerge, while at the same time trying to pass on as much as it can to charity.
Do not try to contact the Reclaim Fund, which does not hold details of individual customers.