For years, U.S. Private Vaults sat in a strip mall in Beverly Hills next to a nail salon. It promised customers easy access to secure safe deposit boxes completely anonymously, and required no ID of any kind from customers. “We don’t even want to know your name,” said one advertisement. The Los Angeles Times broke the story on April 2.
The Drug Enforcement Administration seized the contents of the boxes in March. According to the feds, U.S. Private Vaults was at the center of a criminal conspiracy involving drugs, guns, money laundering, and safe deposit boxes. According to the DEA, the company encouraged drug dealers to stash controlled substances in its safe deposit boxes, advised its customers on how to avoid government scrutiny, used a nearby gold business to help its customers launder money, and facilitated drug deals inside the business.
To access the vaults, customers had to use an iris and hand print scanner. The keys they used to open their vaults were unmarked so the employees and law enforcement couldn’t know which key goes to which vault. “Since we don’t know your name we can’t provide information on your box to anyone,” Steven Gregory, prescient of U.S. Private Vaults, said in a 2012 commercial.
In retrospect, U.S. Private Vaults’ advertisements are telling. “I’ve heard horror stories about individuals who have lost everything when their bank safe deposit box was frozen due to court order or a tax lien,” an actor said in one commercial. “At U.S. Private Vaults, I never have to worry about anything like that. My personal information is never shared or stored in a big bank computer system.”
One anonymous box owner is fighting the seizure in court. “Just as the tenant of each apartment controls that space and therefore has a reasonable expectation of privacy in it, each of the hundreds of renters of safe deposit boxes … has a separate reasonable expectation of privacy in his or her separately controlled box or boxes,” the John Doe’s attorney said in court papers.
According to the DEA, U.S. Private Vaults did far more for its customers than simply provide an anonymous place to stash guns, cash, and drugs.
“Employees of defendant [U.S. Private Vaults] would conduct counter surveillance of the neighborhood and warn customers when they observed law enforcement,” the indictment said. If employees figured out the cops were on to them, “they would attempt to warn the customer, delay law enforcement, or even remove all but a nominal amount of cash from the box for the customer, to prevent law enforcement from discovering and seizing the bulk of the cash.”
When people needed to clean money, U.S. Private Vaults would send it over to its neighboring gold dealer to buy precious metals in large amounts. “On January 28, 2020, [a U.S. Private Vaults employee] told a DEA agent who was posing as a customer and said he wanted to purchase $18,000 in gold,’I recommend you stay under $10,000 in cash and then you could just do some one day, and a few days later you could do the other,’ and explained, ‘If you buy less than $10,000 then there’s no form.’”
After the DEA seized the company’s boxes, it posted a notice on the door. “Please go to the following link to initiate a claim for your U.S. Private Vaults Box,” the note read. At the link, forms.fbi.gov/uspvclaims, U.S. Private Vaults customers can claim their possessions by giving the FBI their personal information, at which point they’ll be contacted by an FBI agent.