Wells Fargo has paid nearly $15 billion in penalties since 2000, for abuses ranging from creating fake client accounts, mortgage abuses, false claims, hidden fees, to making investment recommendations to clients that mainly benefited itself.1
Now it turns out that even the lowly safe deposit box in a Wells Fargo branch is not quite as safe as customers thought. A recent New York Times article2 told the story of Philip Poniz, an internationally known expert in the history and restoration of high-end timepieces. He stored his collection of 92 rare watches in his local Highland Park, N.J. Wells Fargo branch, secure in the knowledge that the treasures from his life’s work were safe behind a foot-thick steel door, and protected by two keys — the bank kept one, and he kept the other. He considered it his retirement fund.
Nevertheless, when Mr. Poniz opened the box years later, it was empty. “I thought my heart would fail,” he said. After an investigation, he learned that another Wells Fargo customer had not been keeping up with payments, so employees drilled open the box, and seized the contents. However, they opened Mr. Poniz’ box by mistake, sending the contents to a storage facility in North Carolina. After Mr. Poniz finally tracked down the items, many had vanished, a combined value of more than $10 million.
New Jersey law requires that when a bank empties a customer’s safe deposit box, it must have an independent notary put the contents into a sealed package and sign it. Wells Fargo did not follow that law.
To his horror, Mr. Poniz found that Wells Fargo’s safe deposit box contract limits the bank’s liability to $500. He also learned that safe deposit boxes are not FDIC-insured. Furthermore, there are no federal regulators for safe deposit boxes under federal banking law. Instead of stepping forward and making Mr. Poniz whole, Wells Fargo has been fighting Mr. Poniz in court for years, prolonging the dispute.
The lesson to the 25 million customers who have safe deposit boxes, whether the bank is Wells Fargo or not, is to become aware of the rules regarding safe deposit boxes, and what you should keep, and not keep, in your safe deposit box3 —
Cash is not appropriate for a safe deposit box for several reasons:
- If you need the money in an emergency, but the bank is closed, you’re out of luck.
- The cash is not earning interest, like it would in a savings account, or CD.
- Cash in a safe deposit box is not protected by FDIC.
- Many banks expressly forbid storing cash in a safe deposit box.
Even if you travel infrequently, avoid the temptation to keep your passport in a safe deposit box. You may need to leave the country on short notice on an emergency trip (for example to respond to an illness or injury), but if the emergency comes up during non-banking hours, you’ll be staying home.
ORIGINAL COPY OF YOUR WILL
It’s best to keep copies of your will, trust, and other important documents in your safe deposit box, but not the originals. After your death, the bank will seal the safe deposit box until an executor can prove he or she has access to it. This could hold up the execution of your will, and the distribution of inheritances. Keep original documents with your attorney, or someplace where your executor can have quick and easy access.
DURABLE POWERS OF ATTORNEY
Similarly, if you become incapacitated, a family member or trusted friend may need to handle your legal and financial affairs. However, if the POA is locked away where no one can access it, their hands are tied. Keep the original POA with the originals of your will or trust, and provides copies to those who may need it one day.
UNINSURED JEWELRY AND COLLECTIBLES
Jewelry, coins and similar valuables should only be stored in a safe deposit box if they are properly insured. As Philip Poniz learned too late, Wells Fargo explicitly states that box contents are not insured, and advises box owners to “purchase an appropriate policy from the insurance company of your choice.” Be sure to keep original receipts and written appraisals. Take photos too.
ILLEGAL OR DANGEROUS ITEMS
There are some things other than cash that cannot legally be stored in a safe deposit box. These include drugs (both legal and illicit), firearms, and explosives. Although banks make a point of not knowing what their customers have stored in their safe deposit boxes, if law enforcement suspects that you are storing prohibited items, or are hiding the proceeds of a crime, they can obtain a warrant to search your safe deposit box and seize the contents.