DennisBeaverOctober 25, 2016 • By Dennis Beaver

If you or someone in your family has a safe deposit box at a bank or other financial institution, then today’s story will be of particular relevance, and we begin with this question:

When was the last time that you signed in and opened the box? If you can’t recall the exact day and date, that’s OK, then how about the month or year? And if you can’t even remember the year, Brandon Hernandez, a business banker with Southern California based Mission Bank, tells You and the Law that you are quite normal:

“Dennis, most people can’t even remember the year, and it’s not because they have bad memories. Rather, it’s something we don’t do very often. Typically the reason to go to your safe deposit box is a last-minute thing, to get a copy of a will, other documents, passport, or jewelry for a special event.”

However, he cautions, “While problems with safe deposit boxes are rare, they do occur, therefore, keep a record of each visit to the box.”

As you will see, fortunately, reader Enna Lee did that and more.

In the 1990s banks were offering all sorts of perks for new accounts, such as free safe deposit boxes. As Lee wrote, “Since 1991, I have had a safe deposit box offered free by the Marina Del Rey branch of the Bank of America.

“At first it was a small one, then, in 2010 they switched me to Box 2147, which was much larger. I accessed it in October 2011, removing a ring to wear at my brother’s wedding. I even have a photo taken at the reception which shows it.”

At that time, Lee had no way of knowing just how important that photo would become.
March 12, 2016, is a day that she will never forget, for, “When I tried to sign in to the box, they told me, ‘Our records go back to the 1960s and we have nothing associating you with this box. It was closed in 2013 and is now available to be rented.’

“I told them that I had a box there for many years, but they did not believe me! It was like being in a science fiction movie — suddenly, I was a non-person. I didn’t exist. I was shocked, upset and angry! How could this happen?

“Inside the box were not only things of monetary value, but of sentimental value, such as wedding gifts, family photos — apparently all gone. I feared that an insider removed the contents, my name from their records, and pretending that the box was empty, classified the box as rentable. That’s when I emailed you.”
We phoned Bank of America headquarters and spoke with Colleen Haggerty, vice president of Media Relations. “I’ll immediately look into this, Dennis, and figure out what’s going on,” she promised and kept her word.

Within a few days Lee and the contents of her safe deposit box were reunited. Key to understanding what happened begins with the unexpected:

As two different keys are required to open a box, if a customer loses their key — which is fairly common — the lock has to be drilled to gain access. We had never heard of a bank losing its key, but that’s what happened. The branch lost its key to box 2147.
Following our call, the lock was drilled, our reader’s contents removed, and placed into a new box. “It’s even larger and they are giving it to me free for five years,” our relieved, happy — but still perplexed — reader, emailed.
“No one explained how this could happen.” Indeed, how could it happen?

We asked Bank of America to explain what happened, and have not heard from them, but Mission Bank’s Hernandez has seen clerical errors lead to the same result:

“Someone accidentally hits the wrong key or an internal operating system update/conversion results in data not transferring correctly. The customer is removed from the bank’s data base, and their box is shown as available for rental.
“Either because the bank had lost its own key, or no one wanted to rent one that size, it remained untouched and forgotten from 2011 to 2016, but eventually would have been drilled, contents removed and safely stored,” Hernandez stated.

“In a very real way, your reader was incredibly lucky that 2147 was not on the bank’s radar. The lack of activity — no one having gone in to the box for five years — combined with Lee vanishing from their data base resulted in the contents remaining untouched.

“It is a good example of why visiting your box at least yearly is so important,” he concluded.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.