Bamboozled: Red tape snarls journey home

Syed Ali has been renting a safe deposit box since 1998.

It started with First Union. Then the bank was purchased by Wachovia. Then, Wells Fargo.

He kept his passport and other important papers inside the box.

Ali’s mother, who lives in India, was ill, and didn’t have much time left.

“My mother called me and said, ‘Please come and see me,’” said Ali, a gas station attendant and part-time dog trainer. “She was on dialysis and had diabetes and was 65 years old.”

Ali wanted to visit her one last time, and make arrangements for a disabled brother who lived at home with his mom. Ali’s father had died years ago, he said.

He needed his passport to make travel plans. So on April 20, Ali went to the Journal Square branch of the bank on Kennedy Boulevard in Jersey City to retrieve his passport from the box.

“I have the key and I have a bank card from Wells Fargo and so many times previously — maybe 25 times — I got inside and nobody asked me for more identification,” Ali said. “Now this time they didn’t allow me to go in. I go and explain that my mother is in a very serious condition, but they said no.”

Bank officials said they needed to see photo identification before access would be permitted.

Ali said he explained that he didn’t have any photo identification other than the passport, which was in the safe deposit box. He offered for a bank rep to stay with him while he opened the box, at which time the passport would verify his identity.

Wells officials said no.

After a discussion, Ali said he’d then like to close the account.

The bank said no.

“[A bank official] she said that I would have to pay $185 to drill open the box,” he said. “I don’t know why she said that. I had the key.”

When things got heated, the bank official asked a police officer stationed at the bank to ask Ali to leave the bank.

He left.

Ali went to another Jersey City bank branch, hoping the Journal Square branch had the policies wrong. Ali said the official at the different branch said opening the box shouldn’t be a problem because he had the key, and his photo ID was inside the box. The official said there was no need for a $185 charge for box access because that would only be charged if the renter lost the key.

A few days later, Ali said, he returned to the Journal Square branch with his attorney, who was prepared to verify Ali’s identity.

“My lawyer explained my mother is seriously ill and he said I was his client,” Ali said. “He said the passport is in the box, and I’d show them the passport when we open the box.”

“[The bank official] said they need a driver’s license, but I don’t have a driver’s license,” Ali said.

The pair left the bank without gaining access to the safe deposit box.

Ali’s mother died on Wednesday.

“This is a very big tragedy,” Ali said. “My mother passed away and all the processions are going on in my country. I’m alone here and nobody is here, and I have to go through this myself and nobody can help.”


Bamboozled reached out to Wells Fargo to see what could be done for this client.

In less than 24 hours, Ali was contacted by a bank official, and he was told to come to the branch. He would be given access to his safe deposit box.

“The issue has been settled,” said spokesman Kevin Friedlander. “We called him and we one-on-one worked it out with him.”

We were glad to hear it, even if it was too late for Ali’s mom’s funeral proceedings.

We asked the bank to clarify its policy for accessing a safe deposit box.

“You need the photo ID,” Friedlander said. “Unfortunately we live in a society where there’s a lot of fraud and in order to protect the people who own the safe deposit boxes, we require a lot of security.”

We understand protecting customers, but in a case like this, where time is essential and a long-time customer says he can provide the identification the bank is asking for inside the box, we don’t think Ali’s request for access was so unreasonable.

Ali said after the bank called, he went back to the branch and he got his passport. He said he probably won’t make the trip to India for a couple of weeks because the rush is over. The services for his mother are already finished. He still plans to go to make plans for his brother.

“I love my mother and my family very much,” he said. “I tried to do my best. I do everything that children should be doing for their parents.”

Ali said he plans to keep the account for the safe deposit box, at least for now.

We’re glad Wells Fargo finally saw reason, despite its official policy is. And we hope it can show a little more empathy — timely empathy — for customers in the future.

To the rest of you: While a safe deposit box is still a great place to keep important papers, it makes sense to have copies of those documents — passports included — in more than one location.

Keep copies in a home safe or leave them with a trusted friend or loved one.

Just in case.