I’ve been covering Wells Fargo for several years, so my inbox is pretty filled with customers’ horror stories about banks. Still, Philip Poniz’s saga startled me: The bank allegedly emptied out his safe deposit box by mistake, lost some of his valuables, and then denied any liability for its actions. When I went digging through court dockets, I found a trail of similar lawsuits at various banks. None of them ended well for the customers.

I write a lot about financial companies and I wasn’t surprised to find that the contract terms on safe-deposit boxes often aren’t very consumer friendly, but I was genuinely startled by the extent to which banks have shielded themselves from any real consequences even in cases of outright negligence or fraud. Send me questions about banks, consumer finance, etc!

Here’s the story: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/19/business/safe-deposit-box-theft.html

Twitter: @StacyCowley

Proof: https://i.redd.it/7bnne4rxb4c31.jpg

EDIT: My time is up so I'm signing off for now, but I'll pop in later today to catch any additional questions. Thanks everyone!

Comments: 57 • Responses: 8  • Date: 

t3hd0n26 karma

“All of the major national banks would prefer to be out of the safe-deposit-box business,”

sounds like they might get their wish soon lol

did you find any alternatives to using a safety deposit box while researching this story?

thenewyorktimes17 karma

People are more often keeping valuable paperwork – like birth certificates and passports – in a secure spot in their homes. It’s often easier to replace those items now if they’re lost or damaged than it might have been decades ago.

For valuables like jewelry and heirlooms, home safes are increasingly popular. Also, some cities have companies that sell dedicated storage spaces – outside banks – for high-value items. (Whether non-bank companies are allowed to market such services depends a lot on individual state regulations. That’s why the product exists in some markets and not in others.)

But the easiest option is simply insurance. Homeowners carriers will typically insure valuables stored off-site, though high-value items often require a rider or other specialized coverage. And there are now specialty carriers – I quoted one in my story – that offer coverage specifically for items stored in safe-deposit vaults.

myops_rock9 karma

Given the “too big to fail” bailouts in 2008 what incentive do banks have not to profit without worrying about risk by assuming the government will have to backstop losses that follow again?

thenewyorktimes15 karma

There was a lot of post-financial-crisis regulation to tighten the rules for banks and reduce the risk of another systematic crisis. The Dodd Frank Act, which was passed in 2010, was the biggie – it’s nearly 900 pages of detailed new rules.

Some have been pared back by Congress and the Trump administration. My colleagues wrote last year about some of the changes: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/22/business/congress-passes-dodd-frank-rollback-for-smaller-banks.html

At the moment, there are few signs of banks and financial companies taking on huge, economy-threatening risks – but, of course, the warning signs before catastrophes are always much more visible in hindsight.

AnalForklift8 karma

In your opinion, what are the most and least customer friendly banks?

Or, in other words, which banks would you be willing to use and which would you never use?

thenewyorktimes7 karma

JD Power's customer satisfaction rankings are a useful gauge of how happy customers are. https://www.jdpower.com/business/press-releases/2019-us-retail-banking-satisfaction-study

American Banker also does a very useful annual survey. https://www.americanbanker.com/slideshow/2018-bank-reputation-survey

I personally tend to pay a lot of attention to fees. I'm partial to banks that don't charge fees for using ATMs other than their own (USAA, Charles Schwab and TD Bank are on that list).

My colleague Ron Liber wrote about Wells Fargo a bit ago with a useful comparison of how various banks' products and perks compare. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/13/your-money/you-dont-want-what-wells-fargo-is-selling-what-should-it-do-now.html

KarateKid19847 karma

Hey Stacy, I have a banking related question.

Banker A, traveling 70 miles per hour (mph), leaves Bank of America heading toward Capital One, 260 miles away. At the same time Banker B, traveling 60 mph, leaves Capital One heading toward Bank of America. When do the two bankers meet?

thenewyorktimes28 karma

Probably Delaware or South Dakota. That's where most banks and credit card companies end up, thanks to their industry-friendly state laws.

fob9116 karma

Hi! Fourth year Economics student. If there's any piece of advice you can give to someone who's entering the world of finance, what would that be?

thenewyorktimes10 karma

The advice for those entering finance as a career field and for those entering as a consumer would be pretty different!

For those viewing it as career field, I have more of a request than advice: Question assumptions. Look hard at data. Pay attention to how economic actions, trends, etc, affect actual humans, on an individual level. Many of the most interesting findings in economics spring from those kinds of on-the-ground studies. We as a society need more of that kind of scrutiny.

For consumers, my colleagues recently published a checklist for high-school graduates. It's aimed at people just starting out with their own financial decisions, but it's really useful for anyone who wants to gut-check how they're thinking about the basics. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/31/your-money/teenager-financial-preparation.html

Togapr335 karma

Question that is unrelated to the article - I saw that banks are building a coalition of lobbyists for 2020 (more-so than the past) -- how worried are they about incoming regulations?

thenewyorktimes12 karma

I think every industry is always worried about new or changing regulations when an election is looming.

It's definitely an issue on the radar for banks, and financial issues -- student debt, income inequality, wages -- are shaping up to be major campaign themes. Actually turning that rhetoric into new laws, for whoever is elected, is a major challenge. Especially without another financial crisis or clear catalyst to force policy action. Right now, the overall economy is strong, which makes action in Congress less likely -- though the situation can, of course, feel very different for individuals within the economy.

One interesting thing about this cycle is that even financial companies are starting to be open to the idea of major reforms in some areas. This tweet from my colleague Emily Flitter, related to how banks are viewing talk about major changes to how we treat student debt, is really intriguing: https://twitter.com/FlitterOnFraud/status/1153665764819423233

iamtrollhearmeroar4 karma

How many people actually use bank safe deposit boxes? This seems like a rich people problem...

thenewyorktimes11 karma

The # of people with a box is definitely shrinking. There are an estimated 25 million safe deposit boxes in America, but as many as half of them are empty, according to an industry estimate.

The demographics of who uses them are pretty broad. I was struck by how popular they are in some areas with large immigrant populations, and bank workers will tell you that older people, some of whom have had a box for decades, are often *very* attached to them. Demand overall is falling, but there's a big base of customers who feel pretty passionately about wanting this to be a product that their bank continues to offer and support.

Legend11383 karma

Thoughts on larger banks starting to merge again?

thenewyorktimes4 karma

I'm going to borrow the smart thoughts on this from my colleagues Emily and Michael, who recently did a great analysis of why mergers are picking up: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/07/business/dealbook/bbt-suntrust-bank-mergers.html

On a retail level, technology allows customers to do much more now without going to the bank. That's part of why the number of bank branches in the U.S. has dropped about 10% over the last decade. When banks need fewer branches, consolidating becomes more attractive.

Also, in terms of size, there's a clear top-tier of big banks with national scale — Bank of America, Chase, Citi and Wells Fargo. For those right below, joining forces is a way to scale up and compete.

With the deregulatory current climate in Washington, banks that want to merge are a lot less worried about having that blocked by regulators than they would have been a few years ago.