TheStreet

People prone to leaving things behind usually don't lose a 401(k) account, but it happens more often than you think - especially if you don't have a great deal of cash stashed away in a 401(k).

Data from Plan Sponsor Council of America shows that 58% of 401(k) transfer balances are between $1,000 and $5,000 when a career professional leaves an employer. That's not an insignificant range of money, but it's money you could have working for you, if you could only find it.

Additionally, the U.S. Government Accountability Office states that over 25 million Americans with cash in a 401(k) or other employer retirement plan left that money behind when they moved on to greener career pastures.

People leave old 401(k) accounts behind for many reasons. The account holder may have engaged in a string of job-hopping experiences and lost an old retirement account in the shuffle. Or, the 401(k) account holder's company merged with another firm, was bought out, or went bankrupt.

You might even automatically have been enrolled in an old 401(k) company by a firm you only spent a year or so working at, didn't realize it, and completely missed bringing the 401(k) account along with you to your next job.

If that sounds vaguely familiar, how do you find the money you lost in an old 401(k) account and what do you do with it when you get it back?

There are plenty of ways to get the job done. Let's take a closer look.

7 Ways to Dig Up an Old 401(k) Account

Before we play "lost and found" with your old 401(k) plan, know that even though you can't find your 401(k) account (yet), your plan money is federally protected.

That's right. By law, nobody can access, steal or otherwise make off with your 401(k) funds while they've gone missing.

With Uncle Sam at your back, use these tips and strategies to find a lost 401(k) account.

1. Call Your Old Employer

If you suspect you have missing 401(k) funds or even if you're not sure, it's still a good idea to contact old employers and ask them to check if they're holding your old account. Your former company will have records of you actually participating in a 401(k) plan.

You'll either need to provide or confirm your Social Security number and the dates of your employment, but if you can, you'll have found the fastest way to dig up a missing 401(k).

2. Use an Old 401(k) Plan Statement 

Sometimes companies, like old jobs, fade away and you can't find them. That's okay, as long as you have an old account statement. With that document, the plan administrator (the investment/financial company that managed your 401(k) investments) can point you to where your money wound up - and who holds it now.

3. Ask Former Employees

Chances are that you still have an old contact or two at your old company. If that company has gone out of business, merged with another business, or relocated, former work partners either still with the firm or know people who are can go to bat for you and ask about your old 401(k) -- or at least give you a contact name or number to see where your 401(k) resides and how to get access to it.

4. Be a Sleuth

You may need to channel your inner Sherlock Holmes if you still can't find an old 401(k) account. One short cut is to leverage a government document called "Form 5500". This form, required by the U.S. government, is used by the Internal Revenue Service to help track plan information and to satisfy annual reporting requirements under ERISA and the IRS code, according to the federal tax agency.

Your best bet is to visit FreeERISA.com, which can help you track down your old 401(k) using the following website tools:

  • Code search: Find employee benefit and retirement plan filings by location.
  • Dynamic name search: Find 5500s even if the plan sponsor's name changed.
  • Instant View: See benefit filings right in your browser instantly.

5. Use Additional Government Document Recovery Tools

Lots of folks say the federal government is beholden to excessive paperwork and, in many ways, those people are right. But your hunt for an old 401(k) isn't a good example of that mindset.

Exhibit "A" is the U.S. Department of Labor's Abandoned Plan Database. The database can tell you if your company's old 401(k) plan is still up and running, has been deep-sixed, or is being held by an outside administrator who can steer you to your old 401(k) account.

When using the website, the more information you can provide, the better. Your best bets include using the plan's name, the name of your old employer, the city and state where the company resided, and the appropriate zip code.

6. Leverage the National Registry

The National Registry, run by Pen Check, a retirement plan distribution firm, is a nationwide, secure database listing of retirement plan account balances that have been left unclaimed by former participants of retirement plans.

The site offers an easy, free-of-charge way to locate lost or forgotten employee retirement acounts. You can conduct as many searches as you want, using just your Social Security number. The site is safe, encrypting any information you input on a secure server.

7. Looked for Unclaimed Money

"Ghosted" 401(k) money certainly qualifies as missing money, and it could be uncovered on digital money-funder platforms like missingmoney.com.

The site, run by the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators, runs free searches for not just retirement funds, but for money in old bank accounts, safe deposit boxes, escrow accounts, and insurance policies. According to the website's directions, if you get a "hit" on the site, just claim the property and fill out the requested details, then submit and you will receive instructions on the next steps from the state where you made the claim.

If You Find the Money

What to do with your 401(k) funds when you find the account largely depends on where you find it.

If the account resides in your employer's plan, you do have the option to leave the money and the account there -- just note you can no longer contribute money to it.

To get back in the game with your sidelined 401(k), roll it over into an individual retirement account or a current employer's 401(k) plan. That way you can put the fund money to work by investing in stocks, bonds and funds that appreciate in value and accumulate more money for your retirement, on a tax-efficient basis.

The Takeaway on Finding Lost 401(k) Money

If you suspect that you've left a 401(k) behind somewhere and don't attempt to locate it, you're risking losing the plan -- and the money -- for good.

By law, companies have to let you know that you have 401(k) funds in your name, and are obligated to reach out to you via mail at your last known address letting you know that fact. They'll also need to tell you how to get in touch with the company and reclaim your 401()k account.

But if you don't respond, a company holding an old 401(k) account has no obligation to pursue the issue further, and eventually will relinquish your old account to the state, and all of the funds held, as well.

Don't let that happen to you. Use the tips listed above to make every effort to find your lost 401(k) account and get the money back for yourself, and don't let "free" retirement slip out of your control.

It's never too late - or too early - to plan and invest for the retirement you deserve. Get more information and a free trial subscription to TheStreet's Retirement Daily to learn more about saving for and living in retirement. Got questions about money, retirement and/or investments? Email Robert.Powell@TheStreet.com.