Wed04162014

Business & Real Estate

Local vault company keeps it Los Altos confidential

These days, there aren't many businesses that proudly declare that they don't use a computer, don't want your Social Security number and will personally meet you at 3 a.m. - no questions asked.

For Gerald Colombi, the owner of Los Altos Vault & Safe Deposit Co., this "Miami Vice"-like scene is not that hard to envision. Fact is, if you're one of his clients and you need access to your safety deposit box at 3 a.m., he or one of his employees will be there to meet you.

That's because Colombi runs his business on the basis of strict confidentiality - what you keep here is secure here - and your identity is no one's business.

To illustrate this, Colombi draws a sharp distinction between Los Altos Vault and banks, which ask for Social Security numbers to establish an account.

"You've got to give them the Social Security number," Colombi said. "The confidentiality is not there… Anyone who has a safety-deposit box at a bank is insane.".

Colombi provides insights into why a bank can't compete against Los Altos Vault.

"No one can get information from us unless they get a court order," he said. "We're so private, we don't even have computers."

The vault, located on First Street, opened in the spring of 2003 and has 4,000 safety-deposit boxes in 10 different sizes, as large as 6 feet high, 2 feet wide and 2 feet deep.

And business seems to be good.

"We're extremely busy this year and we have more (safety deposit) containers on order," said John Raymond, a vault account executive and former specialist involved in security at the national and military level.

"We're not obliged to say how much capacity is in use," said Raymond, when asked what percentage of those 4,000 boxes are rented.

Colombi, who also owns the Los Altos Mail Office downtown, had the idea to build a private vault more than 20 years ago.

"A man came in and mentioned that he was going on a three-month cruise and he had something that he didn't want to leave at home," Colombi said. "We locked it in our safe. Within two years, our safe filled up" with items belonging to other customers.

And, according to Colombi, his vault operation has another special attribute.

"This is the only one of its kind in the USA," he said. "We get calls from as far away as New York."

Posing a hypothetical question to indicate his tolerance for risk, Colombi said, "You want to put up the millions to build this place? If someone has $6.7 million, are they going to build this? You could lose your (expletive) in a hurry."

Steve Fick, president of Borel Private Bank & Trust Co., agreed with the risk involved in a private vault operation.

"It's a large capital investment, and it's a very specialized-use building," Fick said. "Enormous bank vaults are not as common as they used to be.

"Safety-deposit boxes take up real estate, and it's not as cost effective for a bank. There's a place for them. They (Los Altos Vault) have a variety of sizes that we don't offer. I have referred clients to them."

At a bank, Fick said, client Social Security numbers are confined to income earned on assets.

"Banks have client Social Security numbers," he said. "We report tax information as applicable, interest earned and paid. We don't report that a client has a safety deposit box."

Today if a person wants to open a safety-deposit box, the Homeland Security Act requires the bank to ask for identification and an address, and it must associate that information with a specific box, Fick said.

"As a federally insured bank, we have to do what the government tells us to do," he said.

But banks also operate under strict rules of confidentiality, not unlike Los Altos Vault.

"We don't allow anyone into a safety-deposit box unless they present a subpoena or court order," said Beth Nguyen, branch manager at Downey Savings in Los Altos. "We have to have legal documentation, even if it's a family member … and I'd have our corporate offices review it first."

Joanne Kavalaris, vice president and branch manager at Bank of the West, said that the bank doesn't have a copy of the safety-deposit box keys, further noting the confidentiality and security of maintaining a safety-deposit box at a bank.

The government "cannot come in unannounced," Kavalaris said.

After verifying a court order, Kavalaris said, "We arrange for a bonded locksmith to drill open the box. We don't have a copy of the keys."

At Borel, the scenario is the same.

"I'd need to see a court order," Fick said. "We just can't do it because (the government) says. We'd have to drill out the box. Our client has the key."

Regarding security, Los Altos Vault has it in spades, but you won't get any specifics from vault employees.

"We have security systems that I can't discuss," Raymond said. "We totally lock down."

With round-the-clock access, Los Altos Vault does seem unique.

"If somebody said to me, 'Open at 3 a.m.,' I'll have a police backup," Raymond said. "We're at risk. We don't allow ourselves to be in our TV commercials. There are some pretty heavy-hitters coming in here."

Los Altos Vault & Safe Deposit Co. is located at 121 First St. For more information, call 949-5891.

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