Is a safe deposit box really safe?

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Safe deposit box
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If you have valuables or important documents stored in a safe deposit box (also known as a safety deposit box) at a bank or credit union, you should know that they might not be quite the protection for your things you may think they are.

Why safe deposit boxes could be a bad idea

A recent article in the New York Times tells the story of a New Jersey man who 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+ dollars.

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 has now spent thousands of dollars in legal fees suing the bank over his losses but has yet to get any sort of settlement, although the bank was able to locate many of his watches and return them to him.

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Jerry Pluard, the president of Safe Deposit Box Insurance Coverage, a Chicago company that insures boxes told the Times, “If the banks do something inappropriate, it’s very hard for customers to get any sort of relief.”

Where to put your valuables instead of a safe deposit box

Money expert Clark Howard doesn’t like safe deposit boxes for that reason.

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.”

You can typically only open a safe deposit box when the bank itself is open. With a home safe, you can access the contents any time you want. That means you can store things you might need in a hurry — like passports — and not have to worry about needing to retrieve them after hours.

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

Of course, some items like 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 maybe a passport and a few documents start around $20 to $30. Extra large, heavy duty models can cost several thousand dollars. Most people should be perfectly happy with a safe that costs in the $50 to $200 range.

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