We all dream of discovering a lost bank account containing a tidy cash sum in our name but realistically think that the chances are pretty slim...

Well, with billions of pounds sitting unclaimed in old accounts the chances might be better than you think! Here's how to track down bank and savings accounts to get your money back.

What is a lost account?

Lost accounts are simply accounts that have not been accessed for a long time; they are commonly marked as lost after:

  • being forgotten about by their owners

  • people move home but forget to tell their bank or building society their new address

  • people die without telling their beneficiaries that the account exists

Lost accounts cover everything from bank accounts, savings accounts, to premium bonds, pensions, and life insurance.

Banks and Building Societies will utilise whatever information they have about you to try to get in contact when there is no response from an address held on records, but to continue doing so after a period of time would pose a security risk.

Sending sensitive information such as account numbers to an address you clearly no longer occupy would be clumsy service on the part of the bank. It is in this way that savings accounts become lost.

When do accounts become lost?

On a current account, a 12 month period of inactivity would usually designate it as 'dormant'. Savings accounts will not be considered dormant until between three and five years of inactivity has passed.

Accounts are then classed as lost if they have seen no activity for 15 years or more and the funds are transferred into the Big Society Fund which is used to fund social enterprises.

Your money is still recoverable once it's been transferred to the Big Society Fund but you will have to prove that it belongs to you before you can get it back.

How do I go about finding my lost money?

If you suspect that you have a lost account somewhere, the first thing to do is search your house for old cheque books and other paperwork connected to the bank you think an account may be held with. Anything that holds account numbers or details of that nature could be your first clue in the hunt for your forgotten savings.

If a relative has passed away you may find details of an account in their belongings. Any information you find, even if you do not come across specific account numbers, can be taken to your bank or building society in the next step of your search. Inform your bank of as much information as you can that might relate to your lost account, such as previous names and addresses.

If this unearths nothing there is a site you can use to seek out forgotten accounts. mylostaccount.org combines tracing schemes set up by the BBA (British Bankers' Association), the BSA (Building Societies Association) and NS&I (National Savings & Investments). Through this portal you can perform a search using any details you have to hand. The more information you have about a possible lost account, the more your chances of locating forgotten money will increase.

On Mylostaccount you can read up about the service offered and the 'Ten Core Pledges' set out by banks and building societies with regards to recovering lost savings. When you are ready, click 'Search' and you will be asked to enter your details relating to the suspected account. These details will be sent on to the institutions that could be holding your money.

If your money was held with a bank or building society that no longer exists, you can search for them on the BBA website to find out what has happened to them (and more importantly, your savings).

Should you check the WWII frozen account register?

If you had an account frozen during WWII, or you think that one of your relatives may have done, you can still get that money back.

The Government froze the assets and accounts of those residing in enemy countries but with accounts in the UK, so they could not benefit from any assets being held here.

You can now check a list of names of the account holders - surname and initial only for security reasons - and it will give you the chance to start your search, to get started visit the Restore UK website.

The Unclaimed Assets Register

If your hunt for forgotten money so far has been in vain, another avenue you can try is the Unclaimed Assets Register. This amasses information on unclaimed savings and investments in one searchable central database - however, to use this service you will be charged a fee (currently 25).

If all your other efforts have turned up nothing, and you suspect you could have a large amount waiting to be claimed, the fee may be worth it. The site works in the same way as Mylostaccount, with forms to fill in either online or by post, and relevant information then passed to the institutions in question.

What happens when I find lost savings?

If you are lucky enough to uproot forgotten money that belongs to you, you'll be entitled to all the interest accrued in the time since the account was opened. Due to market fluctuations your money might be operating on a slow rate of interest. If it is an account you opened as a child, for example, it has probably been subsisting on just a trickle of interest for many years. So after locating it you may want to switch to a new provider to make sure it benefits from a better interest rate.

Accounts opened in your name, however long ago and regardless of changes of name since then, will still be in your name and the money will still belong to you. You'll just need to provide identification, proving your current as well as previous names, and the money will be yours to claim.

If your found account became dormant through a house-move, try to keep your bank informed about new addresses in the future. Changes of address are the most common cause of savings accounts becoming lost, because you may forget about the account altogether, and banks can no longer contact you to find out if you want to keep the account open. Therefore your money passes into dormancy.

Make the most of reclaimed money

Savings that are long forgotten will not usually be in the best paying interest accounts or funds. So you should take a look at your new found asset and see how you can make it work harder for you.

You can use our savings account comparison to find the best savings rates for your money today.

Of course, if you have debts, then you may want to use your windfall to pay some of them off, read our guide: Should I Use My Savings To Pay Off My Debts?

Should you close old accounts?

If you have emptied the account to move the money elsewhere, or you have other accounts with little or nothing in them, then you may want to consider closing them.

To close the account, you should get in touch with the bank or building society and tell them you no longer need it. It will send you any forms that need signing, and you will need to return these, and specify where you want the money to be paid.

Premium Bond prizes? Check if you're a winner via the NS&I prize checker, and recover old Premium Bonds for free via the NS&I website.

How to find other lost accounts

It is not only savings accounts that you may be able to reclaim:

Trace lost pensions

You can find a lost pension for free via the Pension Tracing Service, then get financial advice about what to do with them. This is really important because your old pension savings could be degraded by high fees and poor investments.

Recover lost investments

You can contact the AIC for help finding Investment Trusts, Companies House for shares, and the IMA for Unit Trusts and OEICs. Policy Detective can be useful for finding old life insurance, but it's not exhaustive.

Premium Bond prizes?

You can check to see if you have been a winner via the NS&I prize checker, and recover old Premium Bonds for free via the NS&I website.