You and the Law: Prevent your safe deposit box nightmare

For anyone who has a safe deposit box at a bank or other financial institution, today’s story could prove to be extremely valuable, and we begin with this question:

“How would you feel, how incredibly upset and angry would you be if the next time you went into your safe deposit box, instead of the valuables you placed in it, it’s empty?”

I’ll bet you’re thinking, “How can that be? It takes two keys to open a box and I’ve got mine. I’ve never heard of anything like that happening, but if it did, the bank has insurance, so of course I’d be compensated or my homeowner’s insurance would handle the matter. Right?”

Are you sure?

“On Jan. 2, My Parents Found an Empty Box”

2018 has not been a happy new year for readers in Orlando, Florida, as these emails from “Minh” reveal:

“This morning my parents went to their bank, at Hunters Creek, and when an employee opened their safe deposit box, it was empty! There should have been cash and gold, their entire life savings of $500,000!

“(My family were boat people, fleeing Vietnam after it fell. They do not trust the stock market, use cash only and have been frugal all their lives, saving money.)

“Apparently, the box below theirs had to be drilled open. Based on photos, there was obviously foul play when the servicemen came in to drill it. The bank had no explanation. When it was found empty, no one at the branch took initiative. My father was the one who dialed 911 to get the police involved and requested a detective to come.”

Jan. 9, 2018: Mom is Hospitalized

“The detective called my parents yesterday to come to the branch. The bank operations manager for this part of Florida was present, and both he and the detective stated there was no indication of the box being tampered with. My mom fainted at the scene and was taken to the hospital. This is all too much for my parents and I am hoping for a resolution.

“The bank has denied all responsibility. How could this happen?” our reader wanted to know, adding, “They must have insurance for things like this … don’t they?

Banks Do Not Insure Contents of Deposit Boxes

Chicago-based CPA/Attorney Jerry Pluard hears these questions often. As President and Co-Founder of Safe Deposit Box Insurance Coverage, LLC (SDBIC) — the only company specializing in insuring contents of a safe deposit box —he explains that:

“FDIC insures bank deposits, not the contents of a safe deposit box. In their contract, banks disclaim all liability for loss. Yet, we have found that most people think they have those protections.

“The typical homeowner’s policy will only cover a few thousand dollars of property, cash up to $500, and excludes losses from flood, hurricane or earthquake,” he points out.

No Signs of Forced Entry, So How Could this Happen? 

With no signs the box had been broken into, how could this have happened?

“It begins with a combination of low staffing levels and poor training at the branch level. Where the keys have been lost and a box is to be drilled, a bank approved locksmith shows up and is escorted to the safe deposit box section of the vault. A teller is supposed to stay with that person at all times, but often does not.

“With no video in this area of the vault, a crooked locksmith can pick the locks on several boxes in just a few minutes, removing contents without any external sign that a thing is wrong.”

Here’s How to Protect Yourself

“But there has to be a way of making the bank responsible for something like this kind of a theft. What can a box owner do?”

Pluard provided these simple to follow direction which gives the box owner real power:

1. Go into your box at least twice a year and keep a record of when these visits take place. This will reduce the chances of your bank thinking that you have abandoned the box.

2. All smart phones have cameras which show the date a video is made. Go to the bank with someone who can video everything beginning with your sign-in to when the box is put back in the vault. Show in detail what is there, even counting out money. Later, at home, prepare an inventory.

3. If something is missing the next time you go back, there is no doubt that someone got access to the box. Now you have proof of what was there.

“If you have the inventory and pictures, the bank will have to take this seriously. And with safe deposit box insurance, you are in a position to fully recover your losses,” Pluard concluded.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and welcomes comments and questions from readers, which may be faxed to 661-323-7993, or emailed to [email protected]. Also, visit