Bank Safe Deposit Box

Source: FDIC Consumer News – Spring 1997

The Key to Your Safe Deposit Box

If you think there isn’t much to using a safe deposit box beyond putting keys in locks, you’re in for a surprise. The safe deposit service may be tucked down in the basement or far corner of your bank, but in its own quiet way it is among the bank’s most important offerings– and among the most misunderstood.

While millions of Americans rent a safe deposit box, few pay attention to questions such as who could or should have access to a safe deposit box (especially in an emergency) and how the contents of the box are protected. About the only time people ever consider these issues is when there’s a problem, and then it may be too late to prevent a loss.

To help you decide whether to use a safe deposit box, and how to use one wisely, FDIC Consumer News has put together the following questions and answers. Several of these questions came from our readers, in response to an appeal from us. We thank everyone who wrote in with questions or suggestions. (To keep things simple, our references to “banks” are intended to apply broadly to banks, savings institutions and credit unions.)

In or Out?

Why should I rent a safe deposit box?
It’s a convenient place to store important items that would be difficult or impossible to replace. The box also offers privacy (only you know what’s inside) and security. Although many people like to keep valuables close by in a closet, safe or file cabinet at home or in the office, these places probably are not as resistant to fire, water or theft. Also, some insurance companies charge lower insurance premiums on valuables kept in a bank’s box instead of at home.

What items should go into a safe deposit box?
Any personal items that would cause you to say, “If I lose this, I’m in deep trouble.” Important papers to consider putting into your box: originals of your insurance policies; family records such as birth, marriage and death certificates; original deeds, titles, mortgages, leases and other contracts; stocks, bonds and certificates of deposit (CDs). Other valuables worthy of a spot in your safe deposit box include special jewels, medals, rare stamps and other collectibles, negatives for irreplaceable photos, and videos or pictures of your home’s contents for insurance purposes (in case of theft or damage).

OK, what should NOT go in a box?
Anything you might need in an emergency, in case your bank is closed for the night, the weekend or a holiday. Possible examples: originals of a “power of attorney” (your written authorization for another person to transact business on your behalf), passports (in case of an emergency trip), medical-care directives if you become ill and incapacitated, and funeral or burial instructions you make. Consider giving the originals to your attorney, and making copies to go in your safe deposit box or to give a close friend or relative.
These simple measures should prevent thefts from your safe deposit box

Before renting a box: Read the security and operating procedures in your rental contract. Talk to the vault attendant about access procedures and security devices until you are comfortable with the level of protection. ”Observe such things as whether customers, locksmiths or other people are left alone inside the vault, which may give them an opportunity to tamper with the locks,” says Kate Spears of the FDIC’s Division of Compliance and Consumer Affairs in Washington. ”Nowadays, devices such as electronic lock-picks or other special tools can be used in a flash and leave no sign of tampering— except that the contents of the box are missing.” Also, make sure the bank’s safe deposit area has a ”viewing” room or booth outside of the vault that you can use to inspect your box’s contents in privacy and safety.
At home: Keep your two safe deposit box keys apart from each other and in safe places (not with your house keys or car keys). Don’t keep your keys on a key ring or in an envelope that would indicate the bank’s name or the location of your box. Give your extra key only to someone you trust. ”If even one of your keys is lost,” says Chicago banker Donald Sansone, ”notify the bank immediately so their personnel are on alert against someone trying to perpetrate a fraud.” If both keys are lost, you should get a new box (and be prepared to pay to have your old box drilled open). Keep written and photographic records of your box’s contents at home, in case any items are lost and you need to file a claim. Also check your home insurance policy to see if it covers the items in your box against loss or damage.
Inside the vault: Accompany the bank employee into the vault, and be sure no other customers are there with you. After you arrive at the vault, it’s OK to give the attendant your key for the few seconds it takes to open or close the box door, but never lose sight of the key and never leave it in the box door. An unscrupulous attendant or dishonest customer only needs a few seconds to make a wax impression of your key, which can be used to make a duplicate. Also, never let a bank employee take the box out of your sight. When you return your box to the vault, be sure the box door is properly locked and that you have your key before you leave. ”Don’t allow a bank employee to keep your key and handle transactions for you if you’re not there— something elderly customers have done and regretted,” adds Carol Mesheske, chief of a section in the FDIC’s Division of Supervision that monitors fraudulent activities at banks.
Outside the vault: Only open the safe deposit box when you’re inside the viewing booth and away from bank employees and customers. ”Before leaving the privacy booth, make sure all valuables are safely back inside the box,” recommends Gene Seitz, also of the FDIC’s anti-fraud group. ”And make sure there’s nothing left behind that may indicate the contents of your box, such as a currency strap, a specially-marked envelope or an empty jewelry box.”
If there’s a problem: Tell a bank manager if the vault attendant seems a bit lax in following security procedures or if you spot something suspicious going on. Immediately report to the manager any items you believe are missing from your box or if there are signs of unauthorized or forced entry. If you’re pretty sure you’ve been victimized, it’s also a good idea to contact the National Fraud Information Center (phone: 800-876-7060), which reports suspected crimes to law enforcement agencies. If your bank doesn’t resolve the matter to your satisfaction, you may contact its federal regulator.