They’re certainly not what they used to be. There was a time, as recently as the mid-1990s, when confidential numbered accounts offered a true veil of secrecy. “You didn’t even have to be present” to open an account, says Chitra Staley, chief investment officer at financial-advisory firm Mintz Levin. “You just came up with the cash — about $2 million if you knew someone, $5 million if you didn’t — and signed your name.” Often, the name associated with a numbered account was a mere formality: “Banks didn’t ask for ID,” Staley says.
The days of secret numbered accounts ended, however, as pressure mounted to crack down on money laundering by arms smugglers and drug traffickers and to pay money that was being held in dormant Swiss accounts to the families of Holocaust victims. The veil of secrecy has been shredded further with fears of money laundering for terrorists.
Nowadays, many private banks require 1 million Swiss francs ( about $700,000 ) to open an account. But you may have to fork over more information than you do to get a U.S. passport: your ( real ) name, date of birth, profession, contact information, type of currency to be held in the account, expected types of transactions, and, most important, the economic origins of the money to be deposited.
As for privacy? Swiss bankers still adhere to the highest standards of confidentiality, facing steep fines and prison time for betraying their clients. But the Swiss government now has treaties with the United States and other foreign governments to lift that policy if bank or government authorities even suspect that the money in an account comes from criminal dealings. The good news for fugitives from the IRS is that tax evasion isn’t considered a crime in Switzerland ( although tax fraud is ).