Questions re Safe Deposit Box keys

Suppose the police found an unconscious man with no wallet or ID, but he had a loose key in his pocket.

  1. Could they tell just by looking at it that it was, in fact, a key to a safe deposit box? That is, is there something distinctive to their appearance? I’m guessing they look more or less like a regular key – roughly same size, same bronzy appearance, with a hole for a key ring? And it has a ‘box number’ etched on it?

  2. Assuming they know it’s a safe deposit key, can they tell what bank the box is in? Is the banks’s name engraved on it, or is there some code number that they can look up? If so, would you need law enforcement credentials to find out, or could anyone find out the name of the bank?

  3. Assuming they can trace the key to the right bank, and know the box number, will the bank simply tell them who the owner of that box is OR is this one of the things they’d have to get a search warrant for?

Finally, assuming you have the key, and know the right bank, can you simply walk in and say “I want to open my box” and be allowed to open it without showing ID that matches the owner on record?

Whew! Lots of questions, I know, but I hope someone here knows. (This is for the detective story I’m doing for this year’s NaNoWriMo, btw.)

All the safe deposit box keys I have seen look very different from house keys - the teeth have a square profile, unlike normal keys.

My key only has the box number stamped on it.

I know my bank will only allow someone who is on the signature list and presents ID to open the box.

It may depend on the bank (and maybe country), but my safety deposit key does not look anything like a “standard” key; it has no grooves. Just flat on both sides with rectangular teeth. I don’t have it handy so I can’t examine it closely but it certainly does not have my bank or branch on it. I have a vague recollection that it may have a number on it, but it is certainly not either my box number or anything resembling a bank transit number.

Same answers here: The key looks nothing like a house key, and the bank always checks my ID and signature before allowing me into my box.

I’ve never had to show my ID to open my box, they just check the signature card. So theoretically a good forger who obtains my key would be able to steal my valuables.

Luckily nothing I have is very valuable.

In many countries (esp in Europe) the bank keeps both keys - “your” key is kept in a small tamper-proof box that you sign a seal over and then the bank keeps it until your next visit. So it’d be unusual there to have a safety box key at all. Obviously they check ID to access the box.

When I was a teenager (ten or twelve years ago), the local bank hired me just to take care of the safe deposit boxes. My job was to sign people in, open their boxes for them, and keep the entry log book.

  1. Yes, safe deposit box keys are quite distinctive. The ones we used looked more-or-less like this. They did NOT have a box number etched on them. The customers usually kept them in the little cardboard envelope we gave them. And stupidly, most customers kept both copies in the same envelope. The envelope had our logo on it, and their box number.

  2. No, they probably could not tell by looking at the key to what bank it belonged. The keys we used had no identifying marks on them. An experienced locksmith probably could have told you what brand it was (Diebold, in case you’re wondering). But lots of banks use the same brand of safe, and safe deposit boxes.

  3. If a uniformed cop came sweeping in, acting like he knew what he was doing, and asked who was renting box 1185, I probably would have just looked it up for him. However, there was a company policy against this. And in fact (now thinking as a law student), the bank could probably sustain substantial liability for divulging this information: a bank is a fiduciary for its depositors, and owes them a duty of confidentiality. A warrant would almost certainly be required before a bank told a third party the name on the box.

  4. The way it worked was a customer would walk into the branch, walk up to me and say: “I’d like to get in my box please.” I’d ask them their name, and then pull their card. They’d sign an entry slip, and I’d compare the signature on the slip with the signature on the card. The box number was on the card. Then, I’d take them into the vault, get their key from them, insert their key and my key into the box, and open the door. The boxes are actually long plastic containers behind the metal doors. I’d hand the whole plastic container to the customer, and direct them to one of the privacy booths. Ten minutes later, they’d come out. I’d put their box back in the vault, close the door, pull out their key (which locked the box), and hand it back to them.

I would only check ID if something weird happened. Like the signature didn’t match very well, or they were acting shady.

I just looked, and our safe deposit key is totally unmarked.

We keep it in its original envelope which has the box number hand-written on it (because that’s the only way we can remember our box number). The envelope also has the name of the bank but not the particular bank location (and our bank has hundreds of offices) in stamped text.

When I go to visit our safe deposit box, I have to sign a book but not present any ID.

Note that in our case the only things we store in our safe deposit box are the originals of important items that we don’t need to access often (birth certificates, marriage license, car titles, DVDs of the kids growing up, etc), and we have photocopies of all of these items (or DVD copies in the case of the DVDs) in an unlocked file cabinet at home.

Woo hoo! One of the amazing things about this site is that no matter what you need to know about, someone has personal knowledge about it. :slight_smile:

Thanks to everyone for their help, but doubly so to Randy Seltzer.

The early answers meant I’d have to rework some of my plot (dang, I thought that was a nicely different way to have the police ID my John Doe) but Randy’s bit about customers keeping the keys in the bank’s envelope WITH box number written on it saved the day. Yay!

The info about a not-at-senior bank clerk guy being apt to give out the customer’s name in the face of an authoritative cop is great, too. Thanks! (I could have worked around it, but it’s simpler not to have to go after a warrant and much better for my novel’s pacing.)

Off to do more plotting…

Plot points, perhaps:
Note that if your husband or wife dies, your “joint” SD box contents may be locked up by the bank to be held until the estate figures out who gets what from it. It may be wise for duplicates of important papers to be held in the name of the “opposite” spouse. She dies, he can still get at the mortgage/deed/title/backup tape/whatever.
If you lose your key, the bank may wind up calling a locksmith to get into your box; the bank may have no over-ride option for your key. This is not cheap for the bank, and will be even less cheap for the customer.
I know a locksmith, locksmith company and bank who were sued for allegedly improperly drilling an SD box. I don’t know the exact details, but it does happen. Probably an estate, legal incompetence or weird divorce thing. Bogus lawsuit, but still a pain.

I don’t need to remember my box number (I’ve been in my box enough times that I do happen to know it, but it makes little difference). They just look me up by name in their box of signature cards.

In the “olden days” banks used to keep an eye on the obits and if there was one who died and had a safe deposit box they’d seal it. This happened to my mum in the 70s. Dad died in Feb of 1976 and my mother buried him in Minnesota. Her name and dad’s name were on the safe deposit box and a few weeks later when my mother went to get the will and contents out of the box she found the box has been sealed and she couldn’t get into it, even though her name was on the box.

The bank told us they check the obits and seal boxes. Her lawyer had to get some kind of legal papers telling the bank to allow her access to the box. It was very quick only took a couple of days.

Then a few years later when my mother died, (in 1980), right after she was pronounced dead at the hospital, I ran home got the key to the safe deposit box and the same day cleared everything out of it. Sure enough later on I found the bank sealed it, but I had gotten everything out of it.

I don’t know if banks still do that, but it’s a useful thing to do, if you’re on a box and someone dies. I’d recommend to clear it’s contents ASAP.

But then again, back then they’d print everything in obits like name, addresses and such.

That’s why you’re not supposed to keep important estate documents like wills and living trusts in your safe deposit box. They will be inaccessible at the most inconvenient time. Give them to your lawyer instead.

Was it ever the case that it was not the right person? And what ultimately happened in that scenario – were they just told that they couldn’t get to the box, were the police called, etc. ?

Mine is in a small blue envelope with the bank’s name and the box number printed on it.

Nope. It was always the right person. No exciting incidents arose from the boxes.

Later, however, when I’d been promoted to “teller,” I got robbed once, and I got defrauded once.

Randy, I’m a mystery/thriller writer. I came upon your posts doing research on safe deposit boxes and keys.
Specifically, if my hero finds a key, is there a way to find out what bank and what box the key comes from?
Especially, if the hero DOES NOT have the name of the person who owns the box.
Thanks for your help.

Randy Seltzer hasn’t logged in since January, so you may not get a response from him. Others may be around to help, but from what has been posted so far I wouldn’t think you can easily make a connection from a random key with no identifying marks to a specific safe deposit box.

Copied from my PM:

The Dope! 'nuff said.