In the movies, safe deposit boxes are magic: Located in bank vaults, they’re depicted as the most secure things in the universe. Thieves targeting safe deposit boxes must plan for decades and bring in dozens of experts. If a character wants to keep something absolutely safe (whether it’s jewels or important documents), they stick it in a safe deposit box and no force in the universe can disturb it.
Unfortunately, that isn’t actually true. Safe deposit boxes aren’t very safe; banks increasingly regard them as more trouble than they’re worth, and they’re not well-regulated. There are exactly zero federal laws covering safe deposit boxes, and they largely operate in the murky world of lease agreements. And if you actually read the (probably very brief) rental agreement you sign with the bank, you’d likely discover that the bank has restricted its liability to a ridiculous level.
Most surprisingly, according to the Office of Comptroller of Currency (OCC) your bank can “drill” your safe deposit box open (removing the contents) under a wide range of conditions, including court orders and search warrants, failure to pay fees, because of branch closure—or because the bank messes up their records. So if you have a safe deposit box and it gets drilled, what can you do?
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The most important thing to do if you have a safe deposit box happens before the bank drills it open for some reason: Get it insured. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) does not insure the contents of safe deposit boxes. It doesn’t do anything about them at all, in fact, and your bank certainly does not insure the contents. If your box is robbed or drilled by the bank and the contents lost, your bank will likely fight any effort by you to make them responsible, insisting that it holds only minimal responsibility for the loss.
If your bank intends to close your safe deposit box because of a branch closure, or if they intend to drill it open due to non-payment of fees or because they believe they’re missing information about the box holder (typically Social Security Numbers or other identity information), they’re usually required to notify you via registered mail or certified mail. If you’re surprised to discover your box has been opened and emptied by the bank, your first step is to double-check that you did not receive that notification, which can sometimes be sent out a year prior to the drilling.
If you discover your box has been drilled, your next steps are clear:
Ask for documentation. If you didn’t receive the notification letter, ask your bank for proof that it was sent—if they followed regulations and sent the notice registered or certified mail, they should have a receipt on file they can show you. If they produce that evidence, you don’t have any leverage here—but if they can’t, you might be able to get some relief from the courts if any of your stuff is missing or damaged. This depends on the specifics of the rental agreement you signed when you opened the box.
Locate your possessions. Next, find out where your stuff is. Banks are required to follow a specific procedure when drilling a safe deposit box—at least two bank employees must be present, along with a notary, and an inventory must be taken as the box’s contents are removed. Request a copy of the inventory. At this point, the contents of your box enters what’s known as the “dormancy period,” and your bank is required to hold onto your possessions until the dormancy period passes. Depending on the state you live in, the dormancy period can be anywhere from one to five years. The bank probably shipped your possessions to a holding center—a warehouse—where it will be held until the dormancy period ends or you claim your property.
Formally request your stuff. Your bank will ship everything back to you once you request it. Keep in mind that banks almost always ship these items via UPS or standard mail without any sort of security or insurance, even if you request it. When you receive your stuff, compare the contents with the inventory the bank provided and your own knowledge of what was in your box. Note anything that’s missing or damaged for insurance or legal purposes.
File a complaint. Finally, if your bank is a national bank (or a federal savings association) file a complaint (in writing) with the Office of the Comptroller’s (OCC) Customer Assistance Group. Although there are few specific laws governing safe deposit boxes, there are some regulations in place, and the OCC can be of assistance in determining whether your bank violated any of those terms. If your bank is local, you’ll have to do some research to find out what state agency oversees banks in your area and contact them.
Safe deposit boxes aren’t totally safe, and one of the biggest threats is the bank itself. If you lose yours through paperwork mistakes or any other reason, act fast to claim your stuff before the dormancy period ends.