A safe deposit box inside a bank vault sounds like a secure place to store family heirlooms and other priceless items.
But that’s not the case for some frustrated customers, who told NBC4 their belongings just disappeared. Those items include one jewelry collection appraised in the mid-six figures and another that came with a family after their escape from Nazi Germany.
Sisters Jill Beber and Dana Lipin said not only were their grandparents’ irreplaceable items from Germany missing, but someone else's belongings were in their safe deposit box. They were stunned when they opened the Wells Fargo box earlier this year.
"Our grandparents came here. They escaped," said Lipin. "They came here with the items that were important, that they wanted us to have, generations after generation. And, now we have nothing. It's lost."
Another Wells Fargo customer told NBC4 that she stashed a jewelry collection left to her by her mother in a Wells Fargo safe deposit box. Elizabeth Lavin had it appraised at $400,000, but the jewelry’s worth went beyond monetary.
"She had so many beautiful things,” said Lavin. "And, that was the one thing that made her happy, knowing that she left them to me.”
When Lavin opened the box a few years ago, it was nearly empty.
"I remember screaming and saying, 'We've been robbed,'" said Lavin. "We thought that was the safest place on the planet for your most valuable treasures."
The misery didn't end there.
Unlike an account at a bank, safe deposit boxes are not federally insured. Both families said they received no help from Wells Fargo. The bank would not even confirm whether it was investigating.
Opening a safe deposit box requires two keys — one held by the customer, the other by the bank.
So, what happened?
"Either they were stolen or they were lost," said Lipin. "Either way, they’re missing."
Dave McGuinn makes a living investigating when things go missing from safe deposit boxes. Most commonly, items can be lost when boxes are moved to a different branch or there’s an acquisition.
But sometimes, it’s just slopping recording keeping or theft, McGuinn said. Many banks don’t follow basic guidelines to keep boxes safe, he said.
"Usually, the end of the audit report says, 'Settle the case,' because these are the questions you’re going to be asked in front of the jury," said McGuinn. "And, the answers you give, based on your procedures, would not stand up in a courtroom."
Attorney Arthur Travieso represents Lavin, who is suing the bank for breach of contract.
"Basically, when I give you property of mine and say, 'Keep watch over this for me,' you undertake a duty to use reasonable care to protect the property," Travieso said. "Or,you say, 'No, no, I don’t want that responsibility.'
"I say, be honest. Take the word 'safe' out of safe deposit box, and just say you're renting space."
NBC4 requested an on-camera interview with a representative of Wells Fargo. The bank issued a statement, saying it could not comment on Lavin's case, citing pending litigation. In court documents Wells Fargo has denied all allegations.
The case is scheduled for arbitration early next year.
With regarding to the case of sisters Beber and Lipin, Wells Fargo said it "investigates customer complaints" and "will discuss the finding of its investigation with the customer." The bank said procedures for safe deposit boxes are proprietary and cannot be shared.
The sisters said they've heard nothing from the bank about the missing jewelry.
Customers can purchase an additional insurance policy to protect safe depot box contents. It’s also a good idea to take pictures of what’s in the box and even get appraisals, if possible.
Wells Fargo's full state is below.
"Thank you for contacting Wells Fargo with respect to these customer complaints. Our statement stands regarding the two customer claims you previously inquired about. Wells Fargo also does not comment on pending litigation, as is the case with Ms. Levin.
"We can say that Wells Fargo diligently investigates customer complaints. After Wells Fargo has received information it requests from its customer and has completed its investigation, it will discuss the findings of its investigation with the customer.
"For your reference and background information, Wells Fargo currently only offers full service safe deposit boxes. To access a safe deposit box, the customer must use their customer key and a Wells Fargo employee must use the bank’s guard key to open the box. This is a form of dual control for accessing the contents, meaning a customer alone or a branch employee alone cannot gain access to the contents of a safe deposit box.
"Bank procedures for safe deposit boxes are proprietary and cannot be shared."