Updated: Sep 10, 2023

Are Your Bank's Safe Deposit Boxes Safe?

It seems as though even safe deposit boxes can't guarantee what their name promises. Are safe deposit boxes safe? It turns out not as much as you'd expect.
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What is the safest place to store money? It seems like there is no safe place to store your money nowadays. If you're hiding money under your mattress, don't forget that a natural disaster could wipe out your whole house. In a bank account? Considering the new fees and bank failures popping up left and right, it's a precarious environment.  Many people end up with the idea of putting their prized possessions in a safe deposit box, but the question remains -- are bank's safe deposit boxes safe?

More people are choosing 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.

When in doubt 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 involving 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 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.

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Tips when opening a safe deposit box

Before you decide to open a safe deposit box, remember that there are a couple of things to consider.

1. Grant limited access when it comes to who can access the safety deposit box

You may want to limit it to a spouse, parent, or child. The bank keeps records of who accesses the box. So if something goes missing you can narrow down the blame to either the bank or someone that has access. If recent logs show no one has accessed the account, then it is a safe bet that the bank is at fault.

2. Check your state's laws

On the rare occasion that you find something inside of your safe deposit box, make sure you know your state's laws. States such as New York have a "Finders Keepers Law" that allows you to keep property turned in after one year if no one claims it. Do not wind up like the woman that found an extra $100,000 in safety deposit box, but had the money seized by the bank with no explanation.

3. Keep a back-up option

The secretive nature of keeping a safe 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, scan documents or take photos of belongings 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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