It’s surprisingly easy to lose track of your retirement savings, leaving them to be eaten up by inflation and fees—or even seized by the state.

Americans jump from job to job and, in the rough and tumble of daily life, forget what they’ve left behind. Employers don’t try to find missing retirement plan participants, or businesses are bought and sold or restructured so many times that they lose the records. In the haphazard U.S. retirement system, there’s no easy way to make sure your assets follow you throughout your career. Just rolling over an old 401(k) into a new one, or into an individual retirement account (IRA), can mean weeks of hassles.

For example, there’s no central database where you’re likely to find all your old 401(k)s or pensions. No one even keeps data on how much of the nation’s $24 trillion of retirement money might be lost. Terry Dunne, of Millennium Trust Co., which handles 401(k)-to-IRA rollovers, makes an educated guess based on government and industry data that more than 900,000 workers lose track of 401(k)-style, defined-contribution plans each year.

There's a similar problem with traditional, defined-benefit pension plans. About a quarter of retirees who seek help from the Pension Action Center need help finding a traditional pension, said Jeanne Medeiros, the director of the organization, which provides pension counseling in seven states.

A comprehensive solution may need to wait for Congress. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in June sponsored a bill with Senator Steve Daines (R- Mont.) to create a “retirement lost-and-found,” a searchable database of abandoned retirement accounts.

In the meantime, the federal agency that insures traditional private-sector pensions is moving to plug one of the gaps. The U.S. Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., or PBGC, already runs a “missing-participants program,” with a searchable database, for the traditional pension plans it takes over. It has handled about 43,000 individual accounts over the past 20 years. Now it's trying to expand the program to 401(k)s and other defined-contribution plans that get shut down.

Under the voluntary service, businesses closing down a 401(k) could transfer stranded accounts to the PBGC or send the agency information on the location of the stranded assets, to be added to a database. The agency estimates that about 24,000 defined-contribution plans are ended each year, mostly at small employers.

“We’ll actually look for the missing participants and pay out the benefits when we find them,” said Tom Reeder, director of the PBGC.

To avoid losing their retirement money, workers with 401(k)s at past jobs should think about rolling them into an IRA or into their current job's 401(k). Rolling over a traditional pension isn't always possible or desirable, so workers need to hold on to records proving their pension eligibility.

Currently, stranded 401(k) accounts are often transferred to private companies, such as Dunne's Millennium Trust, which set up IRAs, notify the account holders, and search for any who can't be found. Millennium, based in Oak Brook, Ill., rolls over about 200,000 accounts a year, said Dunne, the firm's managing director of rollover solutions. It charges rollover IRAs an annual fee of $30, with no other management fees for the default investment option, a money market fund. Using online tools, he said, he can find 85 percent to 90 percent of missing participants. The whole process is "almost always" positive for clients, he said.