On the trail of lost billions

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The Independent Online
IF YOU live in Glamorgan and play the National Lottery, you should look very carefully under the bed, in your old clothes or down the side of the sofa. Because someone there has until midnight tomorrow to find that winning ticket and claim a prize of pounds 171,000. If they don't, they will forfeit the winnings.

If you live in Kingston upon Hull you should probably be tearing the house apart brick by brick. Someone there has not claimed a prize of pounds 1,234,000, and has less than three weeks to produce the winning ticket. Extraordinary as it may seem, in the short time the lottery has been operating, a total of pounds 246m has been forfeited because it was not claimed. If six months go by without the winner turning up, the money is handed to good causes.

But lost lottery prizes are just a small fraction of the unclaimed cash and other assets sitting in the vaults of various institutions in this country. So much money is out there waiting to be claimed in dormant bank accounts, matured pensions and insurance policies and the like, that no one has been able to make an accurate calculation of the grand total. Piecing together information from dozens of financial institutions, academic experts and trade bodies, the full amount is likely to be around pounds 30bn.

The search is not easy. Many institutions, such as banks, refuse to say how much they hold in dormant, old and unused accounts. Others, including the insurance industry, have partial figures. National Savings, by contrast, knows precisely how much is waiting for rightful recipients, and the building societies turned banks have a very good idea of the number of people entitled to windfall shares who have not claimed them. This is an issue that affects huge numbers of people.

Keith Hollender, a UK director of the American insurance broking firm, AON, says: "In the US, we reckon one in four people has lost money. In Britain, who knows? But the cash is certainly well into the billions of pounds and increasing all the time."

Mr Hollender and AON may soon be able to throw more light on the subject. The company, the world's second-largest insurance broker, is setting up a computerised Unclaimed Assets Register, which will allow people to check if there are assets in the system in their name, for a fee of about pounds 15. Several insurance companies have already agreed to put details of unclaimed policies on the register, and the aim is to add shares and dividends, pensions, windfall shares, and bank accounts by stages. The people likely to benefit most from such system are the less well off.

"It's not just wealthy people who have lost touch with their money," says Mr Hollander. "It is very often the people who actually need it. They may have forgotten they had a pension when they were 25 or they may have forgotten a life policy their mothers took out when they were young. The numbers affected by this is really very huge, very large indeed,"

Many people involved in building societies and other similar conversions have still to be traced, as the table shows. Despite all the publicity, the message has not got through to 400,000 people that they are entitled to free shares.

Part of the reason all this money lies unclaimed could well be that many institutions do not want to hand the money back. The problem is that it is up to institutions to find the missing owners, and some are diligent. But often silence surrounds unclaimed money. Banks will not say how many dormant accounts they have, or how much money they contain. They even claim they do not actually know. They are not the only ones. The Bank of England does not know, the watchdog Financial Services Authority does not know, the British Bankers' Association (BBA) does not know.

Janette Rutterford, professor of banking at the Open University, says there is an obvious reason for this reticence. "Dormant bank accounts involve money which is not having any interest paid on it. So, in a sense, it is free money. Financial institutions like to have free money because they can then use it for other activities - it's a cheap form of finance."

The British Bankers' Association denies this. Their spokesman says the banks want to clear up the dormant account issue, because it is an administrative burden having large numbers of accounts with small sums in them. For two years it has been possible for a customer to go into a bank branch and fill in a form if he or she thinks there is a dormant account at that bank.

But the BBA does not know how many such claims have been successfully dealt with, and the banks will not say either. Having a form available or a helpline in the case of some of the demutualisers is not a particularly active way of tackling the problem. A lot more can be done, if there is a will to do it. Some insurance companies have set up special units to track the owners of old, matured policies, and they have met some success.

Standard Life has six full- time investigators at its offices in Edinburgh. In the two years the unit has been operating it has tracked 4,500 people and handed them back pounds 18m. Cases are cleared at 120 a week. With 25,000 policy holders still missing there is a long way to go. The Association of British Insurers says the average unclaimed policy is worth pounds 2,000 to pounds 3,000.

The Government has avoided involvement and seems to know little about it. But they could help. In the US, banks and other institutions have to hand unclaimed assets to individual states after so many years, and the states put the details on their web sites.

In Canada, the central bank, the Bank of Canada, holds the unclaimed accounts and puts the data on its website. So if institutions do not find the rightful owners in time, they lose the money. There is no incentive to inertia in North America.

BRITAIN'S UNCLAIMED CASH MOUNTAIN

Insurance policies pounds 750m-pounds 1bn*

Building society windfall shares pounds 900m

National Savings pounds 2.8bn

Pensions pounds 5bn*

Shares and dividends pounds 7bn*

Banks pounds 10bn*

*Estimates or partial figures

BUILDING SOCIETY SHARES IN SEARCH OF A HOME

Missing Value of

shareholders shares

Halifax 160,000 pounds 400m

Alliance and Leicester 70,000 pounds 154m

Norwich Union 125,000 pounds 172m

Northern Rock 10,000 pounds 25m

Woolwich 44,000 pounds 100m

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