Searchers seek share in lost loot

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FLORENCE PARKLIN recently received a cheque for about pounds 8,000 in the post. It was not a come-on from a loan company, or a time-share incentive. It was the proceeds of a share investment that her husband, who died in 1975, had taken out in her name and had apparently forgotten to tell her about.

The shareholding was rediscovered after years in legal limbo by John Walsh, director of Trust Research Services, a small firm that specialises in dredging through old share registers from Companies House and - for a fee - putting investments back in the hands of their rightful owners.

Mrs Parklin, who lives in Liverpool, splashed out on a three- week holiday for herself, her daughter and two grandchildren with the proceeds. She was lucky: her surname is unusual (we have changed it for publication), making Mr Walsh's task easier. 'We like people with unusual names,' he says. 'We'd like to get a Bill passed banning people with common names from buying shares.'

TRS, which has a staff of five at its office in Sevenoaks, is one of about four agencies offering share tracing services. The task is not confined to tracking down absent- minded share-owners or their descendants. There is also the question of how then to persuade them that the letter bearing the good news is genuine, and not part of an elaborate marketing scam.

Of course, tracing agents are not in the Father Christmas business. They disclose the information they have acquired in exchange for a legal agreement that gives them a percentage of the assets (typically 15-25 per cent plus VAT). Reputable firms operate on a 'no results, no fee' basis and do not ask for money in advance.

They also accept that some people will be jogged by their approach into doing their own detective work. 'About 30-35 per cent will accept our offer, but 30-35 per cent will locate the entitlement themselves. Another 30-35 per cent just don't reply,' said Maria Kyriacou, managing director of another tracing agency, Shareholder Investments Research.

SIR was established 11 years ago, and initially specialised in locating shareholders in Malaysian plantation stock. Now both SIR and TRS tend to concentrate on dissenting shareholders. These are the rump of shareholders who get left behind when their company is subject to a takeover bid by failing to ensure that they are transferred to the register of the new firm. Under the Companies Act, a company can complete a takeover by acquiring 90 per cent of the shares, lumping the remaining shareholders' interests together in a statutory trust. There the money stays for ever, unless people get in touch with the company to claim their share.

Tracing agencies try to locate the beneficiaries by comparing the share register of the firm taken over with the new firm's register immediately after the takeover, and hoping to spot absent names. Sometimes the task is easier: some companies themselves ask agencies to look for lost shareholders.

Up to now, tracing agencies like SIR and TRS (a third established firm is Premier Assets Research) have run niche businesses in a comfortably old-fashioned way. However, a small Macclesfield- based firm with the grand name of Amicus International Marketing has recently entered the industry. Amicus is advertising for agents prepared to pay a franchise fee of pounds 5,000. In exchange, the firm says they will be given names and addresses of dissenting shareholders in a selected geographical area. Agents will then be able to employ representatives to cold-call these people.

One would-be agent says that Amicus told him that his pounds 5,000 investment could earn substantial returns. However John Walsh is sceptical of these claims, and is also unhappy at the idea that dissenting shareholders may be cold- called rather than approached by letter. The Independent made several attempts last week to contact Amicus's chairman, Ian Carey, for his comments, but our calls were not returned.

If you do receive a letter promising to reunite you with lost riches, check the legal agreement carefully and ensure that payment is due only on results. Reputable agencies let you notify them of known investments, to prevent them charging for information you already have. Bear in mind also that the agency's information is valuable to it only if it can persuade you to contract for its services: this means there may be scope for negotiation on the commission.

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