Picture: THE HERALD
Picture: THE HERALD

Is the theft of so-called safety deposit boxes from banks as rare an occurrence as the industry would have us believe?

It has emerged that‚ in September 2015‚ thieves broke into First National Bank’s Sunnyside branch and made off with safety deposit boxes that have never been recovered.

With the much-publicised thefts of safety deposit boxes from the bank’s Randburg branch on December 18 and the Parktown branch on New Year’s Eve‚ that is three in 15 months.

Only now have the Sunnyside victims begun to emerge‚ telling their heartbreaking stories for the first time.

That is thanks mainly to the fact that the most recent victims have banded together on social media forums to share their stories and strategise on ways to take on the bank for being negligent in failing to secure their prized possessions adequately.

"My box was taken from Sunnyside‚" said "Lori" on the WhatsApp group. "I have not been able to trace anyone else that has lost their box in that theft. The bank is not interested; the police are not interested."

I was reliably informed that 290 safety deposit boxes were stolen from FNB Sunnyside in September 2015‚ the victims only being notified almost a month later.

FNB’s head of points of presence‚ Lee-Anne van Zyl‚ confirmed that "a burglary" happened at that branch on September 20 2015‚ but would only say that a "small" number of safety deposit boxes were "affected".

In fact the boxes were stolen‚ never to be recovered‚ and the people who lost generations of family jewellery and other treasures have been very badly affected indeed.

Among them are 53-year-old Shameem Joosab of Laudium Pretoria‚ and 62-year-old Free State farmer Sylvester "Rassie" Rascher‚ both of whom are still traumatised and guilt-ridden at the loss of generations of their families’ heirlooms‚ entrusted to them for safekeeping for the generations to come.

The Joosab family lost three generations of gold wedding jewellery‚ 10 Krugerrands and other valuables‚ worth a total of R3.5m.

"It was my children’s dowry‚" Joosab says. "It was all we had had."

When she got the call from the bank manager on October 16 2015‚ notifying her of the theft‚ Joosab took to bed and barely emerged for months afterwards.

"I’ve completely lost my passion for life‚" she said. "I feel like a dead person."

The police never got back to the family and all they got from FNB was a "sorry for your loss".

Rascher remains racked with guilt over the loss of four generations of his family’s "heritage" in two safety deposit boxes‚ including silver brought to SA in the 1880s from Germany by his great grandfather‚ diamonds and gold jewellery.

"I feel like the black sheep of the family now‚" he said. "A very proud heritage was entrusted to me to safeguard for my children and now it’s gone."

Interestingly‚ like Joosab‚ Rascher never mentioned the monetary value of the stolen family treasures until I asked. "About R2.5m‚" he said‚ quickly adding that it was impossible to replace and absolutely priceless to the family.

He clearly remembers the words the branch manager used to break the news to him in October 2015. "He said my two boxes had been compromised. Compromised!

"I had to ask quite a few questions to get the whole awful truth out of him."

Rascher battled to sleep or eat in the weeks that followed‚ and lost a lot of weight.

He consulted an attorney who advised him that he could spend another R500,000 fighting the bank and losing‚ so he chose not take legal action.

"The bank sent an SAPS [South African Police Service] case number to my attorney and that was the last we heard‚" he 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 in any event.

Customers are urged‚ in writing‚ to insure the contents of the boxes they rent‚ FNB has said.

But victims of the Randburg heist are exploring their legal avenues‚ alleging that the bank was negligent in not securing the facility appropriately.

In that incident‚ a lone security guard was tied up‚ and the thieves spent about 12 hours jackhammering their way to the safety deposit box area‚ undisturbed.

I asked FNB:

• How did thieves manage to penetrate the Sunnyside branch’s safety deposit box area? No answer.

• Is FNB of the opinion that the same gang have been responsible for all three incidents? No answer.

• Were any arrests ever made in the Sunnyside case? No answer.

• Please supply the name and number of the investigating officer in that case. No response.

• Was security of the safety deposit box areas in other branches improved as a result of the Sunnyside break-in? If not‚ why not? No answer.

• Which other FNB branches have been broken into and safety deposit boxes stolen‚ since January 2015? No answer.

This was all Van Zyl would say: "A criminal case was opened at the Sunnyside police station and affected clients were notified subsequent to the conclusion of the preliminary police investigation.

"The security of our outlets is of utmost priority and we regularly review safety measures across our branch network."

The only thing consumers know for now is that paying to rent a safety deposit box in a bank is no guarantee that their valuables will be safe. And if they are stolen despite what the bank thinks is adequate security measures‚ the bank will not be held responsible for their losses.

• For information about the FNB bank heist victims’ support group‚ contact Kelly Fraser on 083 287 8897 or e-mail: kellyfraser03@gmail.com

TMG Digital/ConsumerLIVE

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