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Make sure your safe deposit box is safe

Published on: April 28, 2011

File Photo

File Photo


SUN CITY CENTER— What was meant to be ease and convenience for customers has turned into a nightmare for one Sun City Center couple.

Because they asked that I tell their story without using their name, I checked with local sheriff’s officials and bank authorities and also agreed not to quote from, or use the name of the bank.

This story concerns the safety of safe deposit boxes. What you should look for, and what you should do to make sure yours is safe.

It also shows you what can happen if you don’t.

Getting into your safe deposit box should be as difficult as getting into — let’s say — Fort Knox. I know several local banks where you have to sign in, be accompanied with a bank employee who inserts a second key (besides the one you bring) and then time-stamps and puts his or her initials by your name when you leave.

Besides all this, there is both a locked door and gate between the lobby and the vault.

Last week, however, I met a man from Sun City Center at his bank. I had never been in this bank before and knew none of its staff.

He handed me his safe deposit box key, and just said, “Go open my box.” Since I had never been there before, I was amazed to see that I could walk through the lobby, enter the open vault, insert the key, and could have taken out the box, had I wanted to. He didn’t have to tell me the number because it was engraved right on the key.

When I returned to the lobby, we went somewhere else and discussed the reason he had called me.

While on an extended trip up North, a key to his deposit box had evidently been stolen from his home. He didn’t recognize this right away upon returning, because nothing else seemed to be gone. And he didn’t recognize it right away when he went to his box either, because only certain pieces of jewelry had been stolen, leaving all the rest of their things — including a lot of gold jewelry and credit cards — in place.

“The value of the stolen jewels is over $52,000, and only in diamonds,” he said, obviously both angry and sad. “Even pieces with small diamond chips were taken, while all the expensive gold and watches and credit cards weren’t even touched.”
Calls to the FBI, local sheriff and heads of the bank — which is a large national chain — proved no help. “Did you have an inventory? A recent appraisal? Receipts for what you paid when you bought the pieces?” were the questions he was asked.
“Of course I didn’t have receipts. Some of these pieces were family heirlooms, passed down from generation to generation. And my wife’s engagement ring. Things that meant something very personal to us. I didn’t have what they said they needed to help me.”

Because of the length of time he had been up North, detectives said the trail was cold. And the prints on the box belonged to its owner alone.

He pursued insurance and even legal action but they all said the same thing: “It will probably cost you more to try and recover than you’ve lost.”

The lawyers wanted thousands of dollars up front. Even the ones who have television ads about taking contingency cases.

“I soon found out that didn’t mean losses, just things like car accidents,” he told me sadly.

Embarrassed, the couple did not tell many people but his wife did tell a very close personal friend.

The friend admitted she had had cash taken from her safe deposit box under much the same conditions.

Needless to say, when I left the man, he was resigned to his loss; angry, depressed, and wishing things were different.

Chris Girard, community resource officer for the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office in Sun City Center, is aware of the case and said it is very rare.

“This is a new thing for me,” he said.

By then I was glad to hear it had not happened often.

But it can, with the new “ease and convenient” self-service safe deposit box concept if people don’t change their habits, Deputy Girard said.

David Bock, branch manager of BB&T in Apollo Beach suggested never leaving your second key near anything in your home that could tell someone else which bank you use. “Some banks give a free safe deposit box as an incentive for opening an account, but you can choose to put your safe deposit box in a separate bank.”

Taking care not to leave your key in an envelope marked with the bank name, and especially the box number, is very important, he said.

Charlotte Clark of the South Shore Community Bank in Sun City Center and Apollo Beach agreed.

She added however, that someone in the family needs to know where you have hidden your second key and also have a copy of the inventory of what should be in the box.

“We see clients’ families come in after an illness or death of a loved one who cannot get into the box, and if they do, they have no idea of what should be there,” Clark said. “And I’ve seen family members who have found a key and gone to every bank in town to see which (bank) it belongs to because they know so little about their family member’s affairs.”

Another suggestion she made was to have originals of all important documents like birth certificates, marriage and divorce certificates, adoptions, stocks, bonds and other financial records in the safe deposit box.

“You don’t realize when a family member may need something like that and not know what state or city to write to get it,” she advised. “I just went through having to locate records for a family member myself.”

Clark says self service safe deposit boxes can be a good thing if precautions are used.

“I’ve seen vaults where your handprint is recorded for entry and you put your hand against the system – like the theme parks use for annual pass-holders now — and if you’re recognized, the door will open, and if you’re not, it won’t.”

People like to keep a safe deposit key on their key ring in case they’re out and about and suddenly remember they need something put in or taken out of their box, Clark added.

“That’s okay, as long as the second key is hidden in a safe place and someone else knows where it is.”

And the keys should not be marked or numbered in any way, Deputy Girard said. “Then even if they are lost it shouldn’t present a problem.”

“When you leave home, don’t leave things in obvious places. Sure you have extra checkbooks, but I wouldn’t put them, or any other banking information – or deposit keys — anywhere near them,” he added.

The “one-key” concept still bothered me so I went to banking sites online. I found interesting remarks on the Bankers Hotline site, Volume 7, No. 7, from 1997 when the concept first began to be used in the U.S.
The bankers online called it the “bus locker approach.”

“Sure it’s convenient, but to only have one key (the bank I visited only had one-key boxes; the place for the guard key once used by bank employees had been filled with lead) is a ticking time bomb,” bankers posting to the chat-space on the Web site said.

It pointed out that any payroll savings the banks could receive from not needing an attendant to open safe deposit boxes could be lost in lawsuits in years to come.

There is a special unit that deals with financial and economic crimes within the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office headed by Cpl. David Waytovick who can be reached at (813) 247-8771.

Unfortunately, none of the suggestions given by Girard, Bock or Clark can help the man I spoke to about his recent loss.

Maybe, however, it can be used to deter similar crimes in the future, at least in South County, Girard said.