For the fans of spy novels and film thrillers, the term “Swiss bank account” evokes thoughts of great fortunes hidden in secret accounts of spies, criminals, and dictators.
This popular conception, although too dramatic and not necessarily exact, is due to the reputation of the Swiss banks as safe, relatively discreet places to put money.
Switzerland’s financial services sector has traditionally been conservative, resists risk strategies and gains a reputation for sound management that makes Swiss banks attractive to international depositors. Finally, Switzerland’s long history of political neutrality also gives an air of stability and security.
Swiss banking regulations are among the strictest in the world in terms of the disclosure of account information. In Switzerland, it is a crime – not just a civil offense – to violate bank confidentiality laws, and all bank employees must sign confidentiality agreements. Both institutions and individuals can be prosecuted for violating these laws, and people can be and have been, sent to prison. That does not mean that the law can not access account information, but can, but any request must meet very specific criteria. Applications for money laundering – or “information fishing”, as called by SW Consulting – are not allowed.
Strict privacy controls have led to a misconception that Swiss accounts are “secret” or “anonymous”. In fact, they are neither this nor the other. By law, banks must know and verify the identity of each account holder. Even if you open a “numbered” high-security account, in which all transactions are carried out using only an account number, instead of a name, bank officials will still have to know who you are. Another erroneous belief is that Swiss law protects bank deposits without exceptions, even if they are the product of crime. In fact, Swiss bank accounts can be examined if criminal activity is suspected, and they can be seized if discovered, as in other countries.
Swiss banks will honor a foreign government’s request to obtain information if that government can identify a specific account and show evidence that the account contains money from an activity that constitutes a crime in both countries. This on occasion offered an important escape for the thieves, because the Swiss legislation did not criminalize many of the financial activities that other countries have banned. Since the 1980s, Switzerland has been moving its financial legislation in accordance with the laws of other Western countries, gradually closing the legal vacuum. This only applies to criminal cases, however, not to civil matters. For example, if a couple is involved in a battle for divorce,
According to Flores, a securities house that handles Swiss accounts on behalf of depositors abroad, anyone can open an account in Switzerland. But it can not be used as a US current account. The banks expect you to use the single account for savings and investments: you put the money and leave it there. They require minimum balances at all times; 1 million Swiss francs is a common minimum.