You may sooner or later come into possession of sensitive papers or other high-value portable assets that need to be kept in a safe place – such as an offshore safe.
What kind of things are we talking about? All valuable papers. Things like car toilet titles, coins (rare), passports, bearer shares, citizenship documents, bills of sale, retirement details, school statements, trust documents, immigration documents, rare stamps, mortgage documents and so on. You may also want to securely store data such as USB memory sticks or backup DVDs off site.
A safe is also recommended by many experts for estate planning purposes. In order to pass on the contents of a safe to your heirs without any formalities, all that is required is that another person has access and a key. This is accomplished by letting the heir be a signer on the box. If you don’t want them to have access during your lifetime, keep the key and make sure it is delivered to them in a sealed envelope with instructions in the event of death or disability.
Should you use a bank or an independent safe?
Overall, the best solution is to rent a locker from a reliable large, top-notch bank – not just a checkout company. Many banks will require that you also have an account with them and that withdrawals to pay the box rental are authorized in advance.
Why use a bank instead of an independent safe company? Because independent companies seem to fold or get robbed with great regularity. Like public storage facilities, they are also often used by less desirable characters.
On the other hand, a private storage equipment may not require identification to open a box. They can accept any nom de plume you want to give them. Customers can be admitted on the basis of a plastic card without having to register. Since such a box is not linked to an account or payment facility, the user must pay several years in advance. This prevents the box from being opened and the contents being sold against non-payment of the rent.
A customer told me the sad story of how after a long hospital stay due to cancer, I discovered that his box had been opened in a public storage area after one year for non-payment of rent. The contents were sold at auction. He had a collection of old share certificates that were worthless as shares but of great value to collectors. One had a rare original signature from inventor Thomas Edison. They were disposed of as scrap paper.
The best countries for offshore lockers
Austria, Switzerland and Luxembourg are traditional safe harbors that are perfect for lockers. A good country for a box is a country where it is not necessary to show a passport or go through formal border controls. This is not the case with Switzerland – unless you take your risk on one of the few unmanned border crossings!
Vienna and Zurich airports are also convenient hubs for national airlines. You can easily travel through these countries when traveling between other cities. Just arrange a layover long enough to visit your stock; insert or take out what you need. You don’t have to look for a tax haven for the location of a safe. Any peaceful, stable country where property rights are respected is fine.
Almost all banks offer lockers. If yours is in a country where you don’t have a problem, it doesn’t matter which one you use. But you must have at least one trusted person who knows and has access to the box. In an accident, it is important that your box is not forgotten or left behind.
Keep the key safe!
Once you’ve opened the box, consider depositing the key in a sealed envelope at the bank branch or your personal private banker. By doing this, you ensure that the key is not discovered in you or your belongings by someone with dubious intentions, such as your future ex-wife.
Many bank lockers have two keys – one is held by you. The second (a general key) is kept by the bank. The box can only be opened with both.
There is no key in the latest high-tech lockers. These lockers can only be opened with fingerprint scans. Another solution is to use boxes where they have combination locks. Experienced safe crackers are good at opening combination locks. They are less secure than complex keys – in our experience. Nor do we like secret numbers by heart. Why? Because we have forgotten an important combination or password more than once.
Make sure you have access to the box without showing an ID, in case you lose it and need to retrieve your backup copies that you have carefully secured in the box! Some banks, especially those in Zurich, want to see and copy an ID every time you open your box, even if you are familiar. Wherever your box is, make sure you are introduced to a number of employees who can help you access your box without an ID. Tell them to look closely and remember you personally so that you always have access to your box or the money in the account without identification. Tell them your favorite stupid joke or story and tell them to remember so you can retell it many years later. Then they will remember you!
Shhh … Can you keep a secret?
Don’t just bring a safe key and always keep it on a gold chain around your neck. This is something movie villains do.
If you want something secret, always think ahead. Don’t tell anyone about it. Leave the key and instructions with your personal banker or someone you implicitly trust. Think ahead too! Leave the death instructions in your box – in case something happens to you. These can be written or can be in video format on a CD. Your box will open after about a year or two of inactivity – if and when the annual fees aren’t paid.
Sometimes a safe is forgotten for decades. About seventy years after criminal mastermind and renowned billionaire Al Capone died in prison, a closed bank he once owned in Chicago was found to have a long-forgotten, secretly-locked underground vault registered in his name. His money was never found. A national television network bought rights to show the drilling and reopening of this safe ‘live on TV’. Many people, including myself, tuned into the grand opening. We thought it would be an event to match the discovery of King Tut’s fantastic tomb in Egypt. What happened It was a good show with a disappointment for an ending. Apparently, someone with a spare key from Al Capone’s safe had first arrived there. Nothing of the least interest was in the safe.
Will your secrets die with you?
Most offshore banks require that you have a bank account with them and that they are authorized to debit your annual locker rental payments from that account. With such instructions and automated payment, you can be dead for many years before you are supposed to be dead and your box is drilled. Therefore, your banker may need to be instructed to open your instructions (not your box) in case he doesn’t hear from you for a period of time, such as three years. Better yet, your banker should be instructed “after 3 years, stop contacting my lawyer, XYZ, or your children, wife, dear friend.” Someone you trust should have instructions on what to do with your property in the event of death, disappearance, or disability. Your banker should be told what to do or how and when to contact those who know where you are.
Perhaps someone you trust who has nothing to gain from suing you should be given a sealed power of attorney or an assignment plus a valid will so that all loose ends are tied together. Without this, for example in Switzerland, the bank simply keeps your assets! It’s that simple. In English speaking countries, there is usually a law that applies to dormant accounts and abandoned vault contents. In England, unclaimed money and assets go to ‘The Crown’. In California, the box’s contents and bills go inactive for more than seven years to the Teachers’ Pension Fund.
In such cases, the heirs have only a very limited time to make a claim. Most never do it because they never learn from the assets.
Your anonymous safe in an Austrian palace
The Swiss and Austrians generally excel at running discreet vault facilities. In almost all countries, an ID is required to rent a locker. But in Austria, at the time of writing, there is one vault company offering anonymous vaults. It has been around for years and was highly recommended by a reader. It’s a good place to store second passports, bank cards and other PT gear that you may not want to keep in your own country.
This company has its facilities in the basement of a beautiful Viennese palace. The name is Das Safe and the website is http://www.dassafe.com If you are in Vienna you can visit them at Auerspergstrasse 1. We predict they will stay in business for a long time, but how long they can do anonymous business is up for debate.
Other recommended lockers in Austria are in the Schoellerbank branches (where no key is required – access is controlled by an electronic fingerprint scan) and at the Raiffeisenbank in the ‘secret’ enclave of Jungholz.
A reliable Safe Deposit Company in Prague
Another service we know of is Prague Safe Deposit in the Czech Republic. They need a valid ID to open a box. From then on, the service is very professional and discreet, with no ID for later access. You can pay up to five years in advance. Access to the main safe is self-service with a swipe card system at the front door. You can give the door card and key to anyone. They will then be able to access your safe without having to meet staff or identify themselves in any way.
This particular company is a joint venture between one of the Czech banks and the Checkpoint chain of money changers. It has been in existence since 1992. They are located in the basement of an old bank building near the famous Wenceslas Square. They welcome visitors to drop by and inspect the facilities. The address is 28 Ijna 13. The website is currently not available in English, but if you visit them you will notice that they speak English.