Thousands of pounds could be waiting for you

David Prosser explains how to track down your share of a £15bn mountain of lost financial assets

Not many people would turn up their nose at a £25,000 windfall, but someone in Britain is missing out on exactly that. National Savings & Investments, the government-backed savings bank, says the amount of unclaimed premium bond prize money stands at more than £25m. The unclaimed cash includes one £25,000 win, three £10,000 bonds and more than 400,000 smaller prizes.

The good news is that there is no time limit within which winners must claim premium bond prizes - and National Savings runs a free tracing service to help people identify their money. However, thousands of people never get round to collecting what they are owed. The oldest unclaimed prize dates from the first premium bond draw, in 1957.

This unclaimed premium bond cash is a tiny part of a massive treasure chest of money which millions of rightful owners have forgotten. The financial services industry collectively holds between £15bn and £20bn worth of assets whose owners it admits to having lost touch with.

The most common way in which people lose cash is by moving home and forgetting to supply details of their new address. In theory, you should be able to claim money you are owed, however long it takes.

But there are various threats to this principle. The Government is expected to announce before Christmas proposals for transferring some of the lost assets held by banks and building societies to good causes.

In the insurance industry, several companies are exploring ways of using "orphan assets" more profitably. And in a few cases - National Lottery prizes, for instance - there are time limits on claims.

Simon Ford, managing director of Funds Reunited, a company set up to help people trace lost cash, says prodding people into action is a real challenge. "Most people just can't believe they've lost money, so our first task is to explain how easily done it is," Ford says.

With many types of asset, there are industry bodies that help reunite people with lost cash, usually for free. Funds Reunited provides access to these services, but it can also perform searches for assets in sectors where such schemes are not so accessible. For a fee starting from £15, it will help savers locate old life insurance policies and shareholdings.

The Unclaimed Assets Register operates on a similar basis. "Lots of companies have money they would like to reunite with the rightful owners, but have no way of doing so," says Paula Brine, the company's marketing director.

For an £18 fee, people can search the Unclaimed Assets Register's database of lost shares, life insurance policies, unit trusts and personal and occupational pensions. If there's a match, you are then given details of the companies to contact.

Brine says many people are staggered to discover how much cash they have lost touch with - and she warns people can be vulnerable to unscrupulous operators. "We had one gentleman who called us looking for some lost shares," Brine says. "He had already tried a bounty-hunting firm that had offered to help him find the money for a 25 per cent share of the money - we eventually found shares worth £30,000 on which there were a further £12,000 of dividends to claim."

Both Funds Reunited and the Unclaimed Assets Register deal with inquiries from solicitors as well as the general public. If you are inheriting an estate, it is worth checking whether there are also unknown assets to claim - or getting your solicitor to do so.

Savings Accounts

It's easy to lose touch with old savings accounts, particularly if you have moved, or held money with a provider that has merged or changed. The British Bankers' Association and the Building Societies Association run free services to help you track lost cash.

BBA: 020 7216 8909, www.bba.org.uk; BSA: 020 7437 0655, www.bsa.org.uk.

Premium Bonds And Post Office Savings

National Savings & Investments runs the premium bond scheme, as well as most of the savings accounts operated by the Post Office. It launched a free tracing service in 2001.

The £25m worth of unclaimed premium bond prizes is the tip of the iceberg. NS&I has £1.5bn of dormant accounts. Forms for the tracing service are available at post offices, or contact 0845 9645000 or www.nsandi.com.

Life Assurance

You may not remember opening a savings plan with a life insurance company or friendly society. People often lose touch with endowments originally taken out in conjunction with a mortgage. Life insurers change regularly too.

The Association of British Insurers (020 7216 7455, www.abi.org.uk) and the Association of Friendly Societies (020 7397 9550, www.afs.org.uk) are good places to start. If your information is sketchy, both Funds Reunited and the Unclaimed Assets Register may be of use. Funds Reunited: 0870 444 3696, www.fundsreunited.com; Unclaimed Assets Register: 0870 241 1713, www.uar.co.uk.

Shares And Investment Funds

Look out for old share certificates - a chunk of a company will have value in itself and there may also be dividends to collect. To establish a claim, contact the company. If you have lost touch with a holding in a unit trust or Oeic, contact the investment manager that runs it. The Investment Management Association (IMA) will help. For shares that prove difficult to trace, try the Stock Exchange or Companies House. Or contact Funds Reunited and the Unclaimed Assets Register.

Companies House: 0870 333 3636, www.companieshouse.gov.uk; IMA: 020 7831 0898, www.investmentuk.org; Stock Exchange: 020 7797 1000, www.londonstockexchange.com.

Pensions

The Pension Schemes Registry can help you find missing pensions. Its free service can trace company schemes and some individual ones. For personal pensions,try the Association of British Insurers. Alternatively, try Funds Reunited and the Unclaimed Assets Register.

Pension Schemes Registry: 0191 225 6316, www.thepensionservice.gov.uk.

Independent Partners; request a free guide on NISAs from Hargreaves Lansdown

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