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Anything goes in a safe-deposit box

Safe deposit boxes are a little like Swiss bank accounts -- it sounds so cool to say you have one.

They're alike in another way, too. Once you have one, you have to figure out what the heck you can put into it.

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The answer is -- for safe-deposit boxes -- just about anything. The law doesn't say, and the banks don't look.

"There are no federal laws about what can or can't be kept in a safe-deposit box, and there's nothing the states can say about what you put in there," explains David McGuinn, of the Houston-based company Safe Deposit Specialists. McGuinn teaches bank employees the security and liability issues involving safe deposit boxes and the safe-deposit area in the bank.

"The only restriction would be whatever is in the bank's contract or lease that people sign when they rent a box."

Most banks, in fact, do include restrictions on what can be put in the boxes. But for the most part, what you store there is between you and your conscience.

"A lot of contracts provide that renters can't put dangerous contents in there -- explosives and things of that nature," says Ted Dreyer, an attorney with Bankers Systems, a St. Cloud, Minn., company that drafts legal documents such as safe-deposit lease agreements for banks.

"But as a practical matter it would be difficult to monitor what's in there."

That's because the banks don't look.

See no evil
The banks don't want to know what's in safe-deposit boxes, says McGuinn, because it would increase the bank's liability.

"A customer could claim something is missing, point a finger at the bank employees and say, 'They knew and they took it out after I left.'"

And all this time you thought the employees who took you into the safe-deposit area were just trying not to look nosy by turning their backs when you opened your box right there instead of in a private room. Nope, they turn away because they don't want to know what you're putting in or taking out of that metal box.

That's probably just as well because what does get put into safe-deposit boxes might make the bankers a little nervous.

"If you told me there's a list (of things not allowed in a safe-deposit box) I could probably blow it full of holes based on what we see here," says Rick Sweet, vault supervisor at Florida's unclaimed property division of the state's Banking and Finance department.

"We get between a dozen and three dozen handguns each year, ammunition, human and pet remains -- ashes, drug paraphernalia and sometimes what looks like drugs or drug residue."

Sweet sees what's in safe-deposit boxes that have been abandoned. In addition to guns, ammo and cremains, Sweet says 5 percent to 10 percent of the boxes have substantial cash -- $5,000 or more.

That blows a hole in a popular misconception -- that it's illegal to keep cash in a safe-deposit box.

Cash in the box
"There are millions of dollars in safe-deposit boxes," McGuinn says.

"A lot of people who lived through the Depression keep cash in the boxes. They want it readily available so if something happens to the bank they can go there and get their money out. Other people aren't so honest -- they don't want to pay taxes on it."

McGuinn thinks the concern about keeping cash in a safe-deposit box stems from an IRS regulation prohibiting the concealment of cash to avoid paying taxes on it.

 
 
Next: "Some policies limit off-premises theft"
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