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Between a Box and a Hard Case : Safe Deposit Theft Claims on Rise

October 23, 1996|PATRICK LEE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the third case, Mara Gudis, a San Fernando Valley woman in her 60s, says she discovered that $175,000 in cash was missing from her box when she answered a bank notice to clean it out in March 1995, her suit alleges.

"She was extremely distressed at what happened," said her lawyer, Ronald A. Rale. "Imagine having your nest egg taken from you." Again, the bank said there is no evidence of a theft.

Safe deposit box thefts have been in the news in recent years. Earlier this month, at least six customers of Firstar Bank in downtown Chicago discovered missing diamonds, gold coins and other jewelry valued at more than $500,000, police said.

In that case, there was no sign of forcible entry into the boxes, leading police to believe that bank insiders may have been involved. FBI and Chicago police are investigating the reported thefts.

"It has to be one of three things: either the [perpetrator] was a customer who was very good at picking [locks] and did it all himself, or he had help [from an employee] . . . or there was bank management who broke rules at the bank, allowing him more leeway than he should have had," said Chicago police Sgt. Michael Siciliano.

In 1994, a New York City jeweler reportedly lost more than $115,000 in cash and jewels from a safe deposit box at a Manhattan branch of Republic National Bank of New York.

Five or six other customers subsequently reported losses from safe deposit boxes the same day, said Phillip Burgess, a bank spokesman. Burgess said the alleged thefts are still under investigation.

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Still, law enforcement officials say safe deposit box thefts are rare. Security in most bank vaults is tight: Two keys are required to open safe deposit boxes, and visitors must sign in. The vaults are sometimes monitored by video cameras or guards.

As a result, it's often difficult for victims to prove a theft occurred, or even to prove that items supposedly stolen were ever put in the box in the first place. And police are often skeptical of theft reports.

"It's been my experience that [safe deposit theft reports] are [often] made by people who are confused or elderly, who . . . have forgotten they've removed the property" from the box, said LAPD Det. Aubrey Ginsberg of the West Los Angeles division.

In some cases, individuals who suffer thefts are loathe to go to authorities, fearing a phone call from the IRS wanting to know what was being hidden.

But observers say the risk to consumers, though small, is nevertheless real. Unlike deposits, items in safe deposit boxes are not insured by the federal government, and private homeowners insurance usually limits losses from safe deposit box thefts.

And only a couple of banks offer supplementary insurance on box contents. In the spring of 1995, New York-based Chemical Bank was one of the first to begin offering $10,000 worth of coverage to its safe deposit box customers for $25 a year.

The insurance is available only in New York state. "We thought it filled a void in the marketplace," said Charlotte Gilbert-Biro, a spokeswoman for Chase Manhattan Bank, which took over Chemical Bank in July. "It's easy, quick and inexpensive compared with riders to regular insurance policies."

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One problem for consumers is that thefts can go undetected for months. Bank Security Report details one new method thieves are using to gain access to safe deposit boxes.

The thieves rent their own safe deposit box. Later, acting in pairs, they gain access to the vault to open the box. One distracts a guard long enough to make a wax impression of a master key and return it, which can take just a few seconds. With the duplicate, they can later enter the vault and access other boxes if left alone and unguarded.

"In some cases, there is no visible evidence that locks have been tampered with, which means that months or even years can go by before the crime is detected and also means that the existence of a crime comes down to the word of the bank against the word of the customer," the newsletter reports.

Perhaps because safe deposit thefts are rare, police and FBI officials in Los Angeles seem unclear about who has responsibility for investigating theft reports.

When asked who has jurisdiction over such thefts, LAPD detectives say the local office of the FBI does, while FBI investigators point to the police.

Robert Mack, supervisory special agent in the bank robbery squad of the FBI's Los Angeles office, later acknowledged that federal jurisdiction applies to safe deposit thefts that occur during the course of a burglary or robbery.

Any other safe deposit box theft would fall within the purview of the police, he added.

But detectives in the West L.A. division of the LAPD, whose jurisdiction includes Century City, denied they would investigate such thefts. "We don't handle it," said Det. Patrick Anguiano, coordinator of the division's burglary unit. "It's not our jurisdiction.'

In most cases, police said they would refer alleged victims back to the bank.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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