Safe-Deposit Box

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Safe-Deposit Box

What It Means

A safe-deposit box is a fire-resistant metal box housed in a bank vault that is used to store valuables safely. Safe deposit boxes are available to individuals, families, and organizations; they come in a variety of sizes and may be rented for a period of time ranging from months to years. The principle behind using a safe-deposit box in a bank is that it is a more secure place to keep certain items than in your own home, where they are more vulnerable to being destroyed by fire or flood, stolen by burglars, or even simply misplaced.

People use safe-deposit boxes to store a variety of important possessions, including family heirlooms, such as jewelry; rare coins, works of art, and other collectibles; negatives of irreplaceable photographs; and important documents, such as birth certificates, military records, and deeds of property (documents showing proof of ownership of the property). Many people also keep a video record of the contents of their home for insurance purposes (in case of damage or theft) in their safe-deposit box.

Whatever you choose to keep in your safe-deposit box, its contents are strictly confidential: only you, and any other parties you authorize, will have access to it; not even bank representatives know what is inside. This high level of security and privacy may be desirable; one of the drawbacks of keeping things in a safe-deposit box, however, is that you may only access your belongings during bank hours.

When Did It Begin

African-American inventor Henry Brown is credited with developing one of the earliest prototypes of the safe-deposit box in the United States in the late nineteenth century. Brown saw the need for a safe and convenient way to store valuable items and documents. At that time, though banks already offered a safe place to store jewelry and other material valuables, the storage was not private, and there was nothing to prevent nosy bank employees from looking through customers’ personal papers. Thus most people kept their important documents tucked away in cardboard or wooden boxes at home, unprotected from destruction and theft.

Patented on November 2, 1886, and described by its inventor as a “receptacle for storing and preserving papers,” Brown’s box was made of forged metal and could be sealed with a lock and key. In the decades that followed, safe-deposit boxes became a standard offering in most banks.

More Detailed Information

Procedures for renting a safe-deposit box may vary from one bank to the next, but in general you must present valid identification (such as a driver’s license or passport) and complete the necessary paperwork, including a rental agreement with the bank that stipulates the monthly or annual fee, as well as various rules and regulations. When the paperwork has been signed and authorized, the bank will provide you with two keys to your safe-deposit box and will recommend that you keep them in separate locations. These are the only keys to the lock on your individual safe-deposit box. The bank does not keep its own copies, so if the keys are lost, the safe-deposit box must be drilled and the lock replaced at your expense.

In order to access the box, you must fill out an admission request form. When the form has been approved, a bank attendant will escort you into the vault where your safe-deposit box is held. The lock on the box has two sets of tumblers requiring two keys to open it: your key and one that is held by the attendant. Neither key alone can open the box. Once the box has been unlocked, the attendant will leave you alone in a viewing room until you have finished your business and are ready to return the box to the vault.

You may authorize another person or persons (such as a spouse or a lawyer) to access your safe-deposit box, but there are strict procedures for doing so. Merely giving someone else a key will not be sufficient to grant them access.

Although rare, theft and damage to safe-deposit boxes can occur. Be advised that items kept in a safe-deposit box are not considered actual deposits to the bank (a safe-deposit box is only a storage facility provided by the bank) and are therefore not insured by the FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the U.S. government agency that guarantees bank deposits). It is the responsibility of each individual safe-deposit-box holder to buy insurance for the contents of his or her box and to keep an accurate inventory of these contents at all times.

Also, it is unlawful to keep some things in a safe-deposit box, including drugs, weapons, stolen goods, and toxic, radioactive, or explosive substances. If local, state, or federal law enforcement authorities suspect that you are keeping any illegal substances in your safe-deposit box, they may obtain a warrant from the appropriate court to search and seize the contents of the box.

Recent Trends

In 2000 banks and other companies began to use technology to open up a new frontier in safe-deposit storage, offering customers electronic, or “virtual” safe-deposit boxes. This service allows customers to pay for an account in which to store their important documents (everything from legal, medical, and tax records to family photos and architectural blueprints) electronically. In order to access their account, customers must enter a user identification name or number, a PIN (personal identification number), and a password.

The benefit of electronic document storage is that customers can access their important personal information from any computer day or night, without having to visit a safe-deposit box in a bank. The service is also considered a convenient and reliable way to back up a computer hard drive. The disadvantage of such digital storage, however, is that despite extensive security measures, electronic data may still be vulnerable to certain kinds of security breaches.