(Un)Safe Deposit Box

Despite a love Hollywood has for safe deposit boxes, they aren’t nearly as safe as they seem. In the movies, spies will store money or weapons for safekeeping.  But everyday people trust safe deposit boxes with family heirlooms, valuable collections, or sentimental items. However, in recent years, there have been several issues that should make everyone rethink their trust in these vaults.  

Take Philip Poniz, who in the 1980s put his collection of rare watches and many personal effects into a safe deposit box at the First National State Bank of Edison, Box 105. The bank then became First Union, then Wachovia, then Wells Fargo. The vault remained the same, but somewhere along the line, a second box with the number 105 was added. When the owner of the new Box 105 stopped making payments, Wells Fargo drilled into the wrong Box 105 (Poniz’s box), removed and shipped the contents to storage in North Carolina. Poniz later discovered that items were missing from storage for a combined value of $10 million.  

Others have stories of items going missing from written inventory lists kept by employees. Surprisingly, these mismanagement issues rarely end with customers being compensated. Banks often have language in agreements that renters assume all risks. Wells Fargo caps the bank’s liability at $500 total, JPMorgan Chase has a $25,000 cap, and Citigroup limits liability to 500 times the boxes annual rent. In addition, there are no Federal regulations protecting customers with respect to safe deposit boxes  

Each year, an estimated 33,000 boxes are damaged by accidents, natural disasters, and thefts. Banks see these boxes as more hassle than they’re worth at this point, rarely building them in new branches, and putting a lack of emphasis or care into this part of their business.  

While leaving valuable items lying around home isn’t the best choice, it’s evident that safe deposit boxes may have more risk than previously thought.  Perhaps considering a quality home safe may be a better alternative.