It was nothing like the movies: FNB deposit box victim describes bank security measures

10 January 2017 - 20:49 By Wendy Knowler

Those of us who don’t rent so-called bank safety deposit boxes for our valuables probably imagine the set-up to involve fingerprint-accessed vault-like doors and a cobweb of alarmed laser beams‚ as in the movies.

Image: Bruce Gorton

It wasn’t quite like that‚ says one of the victims of the December 18 First National Bank Randburg branch heist in which 360 boxes were stolen.

But it did seem very secure.

“Zai” of Randburg happened to be at the bank on other business on Tuesday when most of the boxes - which were found by police‚ forced open and dumped in a field near the FNB Stadium two days later - were returned to the branch by what appeared to be a private security company.

All the valuables - including Krugerrands‚ prized family jewellery passed down over several generations; and watches - were gone; only documents such as title deeds were left behind.

Zai’s family had rented the box since around 2004‚ she said‚ and at the time of the theft were renting it for R120 a month.

“Ironically‚ it was quite a big deal for us to access our own boxes‚” said Zai‚ who last did so in October.

“You had to make an appointment at least 24 hours in advance. “Someone would meet you and take you into a room‚ and lock the door behind us. I’d have to produce my ID‚ then he’d go into another room‚ a vault‚ where the boxes were kept‚ lock that door behind him‚ and then pass my box to me through a slot in the wall.

“I never saw any of the other boxes. I opened my box with two keys‚ in my possession‚ and then I’d be left alone to do what I needed to do‚ and then I’d use a phone to say that I was finished‚ so they could take the box back into the vault.

“It seemed very safe and professional‚ so we were not concerned at all‚” she said.

In early December Zai’s husband asked her to collect their six expensive watches from the box in order to have them serviced and replace the batteries. “But I was too busy in the run-up to Christmas to do that‚ and now they are all gone‚” she said.

FNB’s safety deposit contract states that the bank will not be legally responsible “under any circumstances for any loss or damage that may occur to the contents” and bank officials have repeatedly said they have no way of knowing for sure what was in any of the stolen boxes.

Plus‚ the bank says‚ it urges customers to insure the contents of the boxes they rent.

But most did not‚ having opted for a bank safety deposit box because the very high insurance premiums they were quoted made it too expensive for them to keep their prized possessions in their homes.

There have been two South African court challenges to the banks’ “we aren’t liable” stance on safety deposit box thefts‚ and in both cases‚ the aggrieved consumers lost their case.

But‚ a spokesperson for the FNB bank heist victims’ support group‚ Kelly Fraser‚ points out that both cases involved single complainants‚ and in one of them‚ FNB v Rosenblum of 2001‚ the crime was committed by a bank employee.

“In these latest heists‚ many boxes were stolen in each incident‚ and many victims have come forward‚ wanting to take legal action.”

The group had established a lot about the bank’s security provisions in recent weeks‚ she said‚ and firmly believe these were negligently insufficient.

Some of the victims are compiling evidence - photographs‚ valuation certificates and the like - of what they had in their boxes in the hope of getting some compensation down the line.

FNB charged between R110 and R275 a month for the rental of a safety deposit box‚ depending on the size.

  • For information about the FNB bank heist victims’ support group‚ contact Kelly Fraser on 083 287 8897 or e-mail:

- TMG Digital/ConsumerLIVE