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Customers lose valuables from bank lockers, banks wash their hands off

How safe are your bank lockers? Will the new RBI guidelines hold banks accountable for locker theft?

By Shivam Tyagi
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Balendu Shukla, a former minister with the Madhya Pradesh government, got the shock of his life when he and his wife discovered that their hard-earned life savings and valuables stored in the safe deposit locker of the State Bank of India (SBI) had just disappeared. Shukla had deposited the valuables in the Gwalior branch of the SBI in February 2020. In June 2021, during a routine visit to the bank, the family found that the locker was empty.

Balendu Shukla, a customer of SBI tells The Probe that he lost his valuables stored in a safe deposit locker in Gwalior

The safe deposit locker was locked, and according to Shukla, there were no signs of tampering. So, how did the articles disappear? Nine months have passed since the incident, and Shukla is yet to hear from the bank authorities and law enforcement agencies.

Shukla’s story is not a one-off case. We spoke to several victims whose valuables too had disappeared just like Shukla’s.

“In February 2020, the locker was operated upon, and we kept our belongings in the vault. In June 2021, when we opened the locker, we found that it was empty. When my wife told the manager that the locker was empty, he said it was not the bank’s responsibility. My wife told him that she wanted to lodge a written complaint. The bank refused to do this, stating that this too was not their responsibility,” said Shukla.

A couple of months after this incident, Shukla read about another such incident in the papers. This was followed by a phone call from an acquaintance who had lost his valuables from a bank locker in Bihar. “When I got the call from another person who had faced a similar situation with the Punjab National Bank in Bihar, that was when I was completely convinced that these instances could not have taken place without the connivance of the bank officials. The senior management of these banks must understand the simple fact that people don’t keep their precious items at home because of fear of theft. That’s why they rent a bank locker to store their jewellery and other precious items. But if such incidents are reported in banks, it is very disheartening, to say the least,” rued Shukla.

Another victim, Bharat Swamy and his wife, lost 500 grams of gold safely tucked away in a safe deposit locker of the State Bank of India in Vadodara in Gujarat recently. The family has filed a police complaint alleging that the ornaments kept in a pouch in the bank locker were found to be missing.

Many banks in India still follow an archaic system of handling lockers with no technological intervention. Most of these transactions are done manually, which sometimes leads to mishaps and consternation among customers.

The Probe spoke to one such victim, Sameer Gupta. Sameer and his wife Priyanka had deposited jewellery worth 70 lakh rupees in a safe deposit locker in Punjab National Bank, and the couple found the bank locker key was not working. Despite several pleas, the bank officials could not sort the issue. Finally, they broke open the locker only to find that someone else’s locker had been broken open.

Balendu Shukla tells The Probe that the bank officials must also be held accountable for locker theft

“When we tried to access our bank locker last October, my wife’s key didn’t work. The bank staff said they would sort this out and call me, but they never did. We again went to the bank to open the locker in December, but we faced the same problem. And when this was repeated yet again in February, we found it utterly ridiculous, and we insisted on accessing the locker. On February 28, they took our consent and broke the locker open. So apparently, what had happened was all this while they had been leading us to the wrong locker. There were two lockers of the same number but different series. So we actually broke open someone else’s locker. The bank manager made a mistake. They messed up things. We were then taken to the original locker, and we found our valuables in that locker,” said Sameer.

Priti Upadhyay, a resident of Ahmedabad, was not as lucky as Sameer and Priyanka. In her FIR, she stated that she found lakhs worth jewellery missing when she opened her locker at IDBI. According to her, the thief had placed a photograph of an Indian goddess and 101 rupees inside her locker.

The bank safe deposit locker facility is a subsidiary service rendered by most banks where the customer pays an annual rent depending on the size of the locker and the centre at which the branch is located. The customer signs a locker agreement with the bank at the time of allotment of the locker.

In most agreements, the banks make it amply clear that the bank is not responsible for the contents kept in the locker. The banks, in turn, put the onus on the customer with most agreements stating that the operations carried out by the hirer is at their own risk and the bank is not liable for any claims made in the future.

“Sometimes, the banks cannot be entirely blamed, and there are many people who simply blame the banks for their own faults. They may have not locked the locker properly, and some people also make false claims. As for the banks, they see it as a procedure where they rent out the space to the customer for the safekeeping of valuables. Once it is rented out, according to the bank, it is the customer’s responsibility. When the bank does not see what the customer has kept inside the locker, how can the bank own responsibility? There are multiple layers to this problem. The only solution to this is that banks must move on from the manual system of functioning to more sophisticated and technologically advanced locker systems,” said Vincent D Silva, a former General Manager of Canara Bank.

The banks follow a lessor-lessee relationship with the customer when they rent out the locker space. “Most banks have a strong room. Normally, when the customer comes to operate the lockers, the customer’s signatures are taken on the bank’s registers. The customer’s identity is verified, and the bank official uses the master key to open the guardian lock. Only when the guardian lock is opened the customer can operate his key and open his locker cabinet. Once the customer uses his key to open the door, the bank official comes out, and the customer is entitled to absolute privacy to carry out the transaction. The lockers do not have duplicate keys either,” asserted another bank official.

Many senior bank officials who spoke to The Probe said the customers can take several precautions while safekeeping their valuables in a locker. “The customer should ensure that the door is pushed fully, and then the locker must be locked. Sometimes the customers are in such a tearing hurry that they pick up whatever they want, and inadvertently the customer leaves some items outside the locker and locks the door. It’s important to come to the bank with an absolutely free state of mind while operating lockers and not be in a hurry. The customers should also be mindful of miscreants who may be loitering around the bank during festival season. They try to steal from customers who come to the banks to operate the lockers to take out their valuables during festivals. Senior citizens must be accompanied by another trusted member when they operate bank lockers,” said N.S Srinath, a senior banking official of a scheduled commercial bank.

While there may be instances of misreporting by customers, the fact is that there have been several cases where the police have arrested bank officials for indulging in such bank locker frauds.

A former SBI employee was arrested recently in Koraput in Odisha for stealing gold from a bank locker. In another case, 13 people including the manager and the assistant manager of Punjab National Bank were arrested in connection with jewellery missing from a locker in Palamu district of Jharkhand.

The RBI had recently issued guidelines that made banks responsible for any loss of locker material caused by their negligence. The latest RBI guidelines that banks should implement from January this year, states that: "It is the responsibility of banks to take all steps for the safety and security of the premises in which the safe deposit vaults are housed. It has the responsibility to ensure that incidents like fire, theft, burglary, robbery, dacoity, building collapse do not occur in the bank’s premises due to its own shortcomings, negligence and by any act of omission/commission. As banks cannot claim that they bear no liability towards their customers for loss of contents of the locker, in instances where loss of contents of locker are due to incidents mentioned above or attributable to fraud committed by its employee(s), the banks’ liability shall be for an amount equivalent to one hundred times the prevailing annual rent of the safe deposit locker."

While the RBI has stepped in to make the bank locker operation systems more transparent and accountable, many officials say that the larger solution to the problem is the use of technology in the operation of safe deposit lockers. The multi-level security check system through debit cards, biometric authentication, smart vaults operated through atm machines, and robotic technology to carry locker cabinets to the customers through conveyor belts and in-built security systems could all be a solution. Though a few banks have implemented such systems in some of its branches, delivering such services in semi-urban and rural parts of the country will be a challenge.