How Safe Are Your Bank’s Safe Deposit Boxes?

Laura Li

By Laura Li  Thu Feb 7, 2013

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-JvL- / flickr | http://www.flickr.com/photos/-jvl-/4983920242/

-JvL- / flickr source

Seems like there’s no safe place to store your money these days. Under your mattress? Natural disasters could wipe out your whole house. Bank accounts? Considering the new fees and bank failures popping up left and right, it’s a precarious environment.

That’s why some people choose to store their valuables in banks’ safe deposit boxes, which are basically lockers that allow you to take advantage of the presumed security of the bank building for a fee.

However, just this past week, a woman in California discovered that her Wells Fargo safe deposit box had been rented out to another customer, resulting in the disappearance of important family treasures. Though tragic, mix-ups do happen. But some losses are more deliberate — lest you think that bank robbery seems like a negligible worry best left to inventive movie plots.

Lock It Up

General consensus states that bank safe deposit boxes should be kept in the bank vault, though not all banks necessarily adhere to this. A friend of mine who worked at a small California bank two years ago told me about a robbery of her bank’s safe deposit boxes, a burglary made easier by the fact that the safe deposit box room was not actually in the vault; it was just a separate room within the bank that the robber(s) accessed via the roof.

A similar instance occurred in New York last August when a robber raided a TD Bank branch’s safe deposit boxes through the roof, something that shouldn’t be possible if the deposit boxes are stored in a secure vault. It’s a huge oversight, as well as a reminder that before you get a safe deposit box, you should always ascertain that they are located in the most secure area of the bank.

Unfortunately, even a bank vault isn’t guaranteed to be impenetrable. Although statisticians have concluded that bank robbing isn’t the lucrative endeavor it once was, determined burglars haven’t been deterred, as 2013 started off with a high-profile heist last month in Germany. Similarly, an Argentina bank’s safety deposit boxes were stolen in 2011 via a carefully planned tunnel.

Things To Consider

The secretive nature of keeping a safety deposit box generally works against the customer if the box gets lost, stolen or destroyed, as it is difficult to prove what was contained inside. One way to protect your belongings is to copy or scan documents before placing them in a waterproof bag inside the deposit box.

As safe deposit boxes are not insured by the FDIC, you might look into buying fire or theft insurance for those items. You can also purchase jewelry insurance for your shiny valuables and heirlooms. When you shop around for a safe deposit box, ask questions about how secure the boxes are against theft, fire or other damages. Take a tour of the place if you can to get a feel for how safe or private the vault is.

In general, the majority of safe deposit box customers don’t encounter problems, as it is the bank’s priority to keep the vault safe. High-stakes bank robberies are relatively rare, but they demonstrate that no location is completely secure. Perhaps we should learn not to form too strong an attachment to our earthly possessions?

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Add Your 2 Cents

  • Alan

    I wish that you had made mention of upon the death of the box holder, the box is sealed. If the proper documents aren’t filed (such as a will, trust…whatever) or the name of next of kin is not put on the “permission card” (perhaps the I’ll get to that later” syndrome), gaining access to the family box can be a legal nightmare. Perhaps you might update your excellent article with these few caveats? Thanks. Alan in Massachusetts

    • lauraliMBT

      Thanks for the tip, Alan! I’ll definitely look into it.

  • Chuck

    My bank in the suburbs of Chicago sent me info this year about a product they were offering through an insurance company that insured everything in my box without having to disclose the contents. I selected the amount ($10K) and gave the company 2 digits of the box . It cost $50. I took some jewelry my wife is saving for our daughters and put it in the box -took it off the homeowners policy-saves almost $70 a year. The policy also pays me $3k to replace my will and car titles and house deed if they are taken or damaged which is nice. One of the better things the bank has done for me lately.

    • Debra

      Wish Wells Fargo offered this our box there was robbed of important documents and expensive jewelry and ten grand in cash.

  • Charlotte

    I feel so relieved to know that my valuables are 100% safe. I had some items from my great-grandmothers estate, and had no idea what to do with them or where to store them. I decided on a safe deposit box at my local bank. Upon signing me up my banker gave me a brochure for SDBIC. I bought a policy that costs less than a full tank of gas, and now I have piece of mind. I feel that the policy and the security of safe deposit box is the safest way to store these antique heirlooms. I cant believe how easy it was to get coverage, took five minutes.

    • Debra

      Get Them Out Now!
      They Are Not Safe!
      Especially If In Wells Fargo Safe Deposit Box!
      Our box there ROBBED!!!!!!!!!!

      Better to have insured with photos and appraisals and put in fire proof safe professionally installed and hidden in house!!!!!!!!

      • Moby Dick

        Your house is far more likely to be caught on fire than a bank. Also, firefighter may not be able to extinguish the fire before the is destoryed.

  • Mike

    I wonder if that policy would cover cash if my bank does not allow me to place cash currency in my box?

  • Debra

    Safe deposit box moved by Wells Fargo Bank Was Robbed!!!!!!!
    We were told after box moved this time, not normal always told before box moved not after.
    Went to bank to get something out of box.

    Instead found keys opened box with wrong number and box robbed!!!!!

  • no

    never trust ANY banks.

  • Moby Dick

    The cases you listed are extremely rare exceptions. Generally, safe deposited box is far more secured than the safe in your house due to construction, biometric ID, monitored alarm system, and strict controlled access. You also don’t have to worry about someone in your family steal your access code form the safe you hided in your bedroom.

    Just ensure your stuff in the box are listed on your will.