Debunking the Rumor Regarding DHS Access to Safe Deposit Boxes

A familiar rumor making the rounds online has elicited a number of phone calls from concerned credit union members in the Northwest.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has, according to the rumors, issued memos informing financial institutions that DHS agents can access a safe deposit box without first presenting a warrant or a subpoena authorizing entrance. The rumor typically goes on to also give DHS agents the power to search, seize or photograph the contents of the box as evidence.

“Before the black helicopters and conspiracy theories start taking off, it is important to know that this is a rumor that resurfaces every few years,” said David Curtis, director of compliance services for the Northwest Credit Union Association (NWCUA). “The Department of Homeland Security has issued no such memo, and we don’t expect that we will see anything even remotely similar to this in the future.”

A few things to remember and share with staff or concerned members:

  • As a standard practice, credit unions do not ask members about the items that are stored in a safe deposit box. When the member signs the lease agreement, they are agreeing to not store certain items in the box (hazardous or explosive materials, among other things), but there is no requirement that the member disclose the contents of the box to the credit union at any time. The box contents are only necessarily known by the renter(s). So, how could DHS show up and demand that the credit union open boxes that contain gold, silver or cash if the credit union doesn’t know if any of the boxes contain these items?
  • If a law enforcement official showed up and demanded access to a safe deposit box without a warrant or subpoena, the credit union staff would not grant this request. All policies require that only the member or designated agents (such as a power of attorney) be allowed access to a box. A verbal demand from a law enforcement agent will not change that.
  • Even if a law enforcement officer did show up and request such an action (to access the box without a warrant or subpoena), the only option to open the box on demand would be for the credit union to have it drilled. Drilling is a time-consuming, expensive procedure, and unless a warrant or subpoena is present, a credit union will not drill a safe deposit box based on the request of a law enforcement officer.

It is important to ensure that members know that the contents of a safe deposit box are not recorded anywhere by the credit union while they are in the safety of the box. However, if the member fails to pay the rent on the safe deposit box, the credit union may (after following notification guidelines in the safe deposit policy, procedures, and contract) have the box drilled.

After the box is drilled, two credit union employees will detail the contents of the box, secure them in a tamper-proof container, and store the contents securely. If the member does not come into the credit union after a certain amount of time, the credit union may be required to send the contents (along with a detailed list of the contents) to the state’s unclaimed properties department. It is important to note that this is not seizure by the government—it is forfeiture by the member.

It is also important to ensure that members know and understand that the contents of a safe deposit box are not federally insured by the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA).

“If you do receive any questions from concerned members, you can assure them that this is a rumor,” Curtis said. “It has surfaced in previous years, including in 2006, 2008 and 2011, and has been debunked each time. Let your members know that their safe deposit box contents are safe from unauthorized access by law enforcement based on your policies and procedures—and the law.”

 

Questions? Contact the Compliance Hotline: 1.800.546.4465, compliance@nwcua.org.

Posted in Compliance.