Is a Safe Deposit Box Really Safe?

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If you have valuables or important documents stored in a safe deposit box at a bank or credit union, you should know that your items might not have the protection you think they do.

Why Safe Deposit Boxes Could Be a Bad Idea

A New York Times article tells the story of a New Jersey man who had kept his collection of rare watches in a safe deposit box at a local bank since 1983. That bank changed ownership many times over the years, eventually becoming a Wells Fargo.

In 2014, he opened the box to find that his watches — along with some other valuables and documents he had in the box — were missing. The total value of the items? An estimated $10 million plus!

Unfortunately, according to the Times:

“There are an estimated 25 million safe deposit boxes in America, and they operate in a legal gray zone within the highly regulated banking industry. There are no federal laws governing the boxes; no rules require banks to compensate customers if their property is stolen or destroyed.”

The man spent thousands of dollars in legal fees suing the bank over his losses but, five years later, had yet to get any sort of settlement, although the bank was able to locate some of his watches and return them to him.

Where To Put Your Valuables Instead of a Safe Deposit Box

Money expert Clark Howard doesn’t like safe deposit boxes for exactly the reason described in the case above.

Instead, he says: “I keep valuables in a large fireproof safe. It’s well hidden and way too heavy for anyone to just walk out with.”

Clark says he used to recommend safety deposit boxes, but during the Great Recession, a lot of people lost their possessions when banks shut their doors.

“A bank would go insolvent, a branch would be purchased by somebody else, the banks would close and your possessions would go lost in space,” he says. “Buy yourself your own big safe that is fireproof and put your possessions in it, because the banks fouled this up in the aftermath of the banking scandals.”

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Besides, safe deposit boxes aren’t terribly convenient: You have to get to the bank, and it has to be open when you need your items. With a home safe, you can access the contents any time you want.

Additionally, anything stored in your home will be covered by your homeowners insurance, which is not always the case with safe deposit boxes.

Note that some items, such as expensive jewelry, will likely need a special insurance rider to be covered up to their full value. Check with your home insurance company to see if this applies to you.

How Much Do Fireproof Safes Cost?

Inexpensive fireproof safes that can hold a few documents start around $20 to $30. Extra large, heavy-duty models can cost hundreds of dollars. Most people should be perfectly happy with a safe that costs in the $50 to $200 range.

Conclusion

Safety deposit boxes used to be popular, but confidence in them has lessened over the years.

Clark says the best way to ensure that your possessions are protected is to secure them yourself.

“You are your best safety deposit box. Having a big fire safe that is big enough that burglars cannot carry it out is something I would recommend,” he says.

More Resources From Clark.com:

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