Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life - Neil Strauss (2009)
Part III. ESCAPE
A few words of advice: never go to a conference of paranoid people looking for information.
I’ve spent fifteen years as a reporter. I’ve accidentally found myself swept up in riots, coups, and Kenny G concerts, and always gotten the story. But the Sovereign Society Offshore Advantage Seminar was no place for the casual question.
The wide hallways outside the conference rooms of the Sheraton Hotel in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, were packed with middle-aged men and women. They weren’t well dressed, but they weren’t badly dressed either. They weren’t attractive, nor were they ugly. They didn’t appear to be rich, but they didn’t seem poor.
What bound them together was that they all appeared inconspicuous. Unlike me, they weren’t the type of people selected for random searches by airport security. Yet there was one thing that separated them from the rest of the guests at the Sheraton: they were alone. None appeared to be with spouses, children, or families. Their mission, and perhaps their life, was a solitary one.
As was mine. I hadn’t yet told my family or friends about what I was doing. As far as they knew, I’d gone to Mexico to surf, drink, and meet girls. Which definitely would have been more fun.
I looked around the hallway—at the potbellied man in the Hawaiian shirt, the greasy-haired woman in the blue business suit, the unshaven man in the Panama hat. And I wondered if they’d already escaped, and where and when and why and how it went. But I would never know. Outside of a few pleasantries, none of them would talk to me.
I took a seat in the back of the conference room, hoping to glean something from the presentations. A man in a business suit with black hair cut over big ears was speaking onstage. His name was Rich Checkan. His company was Asset Strategies International.
He said that when a country’s trade deficit is greater than 5 percent of its gross domestic product, the currency typically falls 20 to 40 percent.
He said that the U.S. deficit was at 5.7 percent of its gross domestic product, making a substantial dollar devaluation practically unavoidable.
He said that people trying to escape wars had been able to barter diamonds and gold to get airlifted out of the country.
He said that to protect ourselves, we should invest in foreign currencies and precious stones and metals, particularly gold.
He said he happened to offer just such a service.
None of the presentations that day were about obtaining a passport and fleeing America. The world of the Sovereign Society was much more involved than that. Thomas Fischer of Jyske Bank in Denmark urged attendees to keep their money offshore, where it wouldn’t get confiscated by the government or lost in a lawsuit. Mark Seaton of Armor Technologies tried to sell computer privacy to prevent hackers from accessing private data. Chatzky and Associates urged attendees to open foreign trusts and LLCs to protect their assets.
I looked over the schedule for the second day. Most were also about keeping money safe from high taxes, lawsuits, asset seizures, government regulations, and inflation.
The paranoia here was different from mine. The members of the Sovereign Society were suspicious of the United States government. And while the events of the last few years compelled me to agree with them, I was equally worried about the suspicion other countries had of the U.S. government—and the preemptive or retaliatory measures they might take against it. In short, they wanted to save their money. I wanted to save my skin.
By the end of the day, I still hadn’t made a friend or been in a discussion longer than three minutes. Some people seemed to know each other, but whenever I tried to join their conversations, they ignored me. By this point, I was pretty sure I was the most suspicious-looking person there.
Though paranoia is often used as a derogatory term, the truth is that it’s a survival instinct. If you think your postman is stealing your checks or your nurse is poisoning your food, even if it’s not true, the accusation is rooted in an innate desire for self-preservation. When a cat perks up its ears or hides under a bed when a completely harmless stranger approaches, it’s the exact same response, developed through millennia spent living in the wild, where the unknown was a threat.
And because the future is unknown, no matter how good or bad things may be today, it will always be a threat. So, ultimately, the sole arbiter of what’s paranoia and what’s common sense is what happens tomorrow. You’re only paranoid if you’re wrong. If you’re right, you’re a prophet. St. Slim Jim, patron saint of offshore bank accounts and paranoid cats.
Though the presenters were easy to mock, the next day I found myself picking up a flyer for Jyske Bank in Denmark from the conference information booth. If I was going to set up a new citizenship offshore, then I might as well put some money there to protect my savings against hyperinflation, bank failures, and lawsuits. Just in Case.
By writing books and articles, I was exposing myself to litigation and violating one of the key principles of escape artists everywhere: privacy. The less people know about you, the less open you are to attack. I’d had many lawyers—including attorneys for Celine Dion and Michael Jackson—threaten me while I was at the Times.
My friend Craig, who’d recently received his silver cryonics wrist bracelet in the mail, had been sued by a former business partner. The litigation had wiped his bank account clean, he still had $150,000 in legal bills to pay, and the case hadn’t even gone to court yet. Then there was my friend Frank, an Internet marketer who used the wrong disclaimers on his website. He was consequently accused of running a pyramid scheme by the Federal Trade Commission, which seized every penny he had without filing a single criminal charge.
I wasn’t rich by any means, but it would still be cool if my net worth was zero. If I didn’t own anything, then nothing could ever be taken away from me.
The speakers had clearly gotten to me.
We make fun of those we’re most scared of becoming.
As long as I was gathering intelligence, I grabbed a USB stick with information about Armor Technologies on it as well. Considering that I was about to take nearly every step the U.S. government and the IRS considered suspicious, it was time to protect my computer from prying eyes.
As I turned to walk away, I noticed a short woman shuffle into the information booth. Her name tag identified her as Erika Nolan, president of the Sovereign Society. Maybe she would talk to me.
“I need some help,” I told her. “I want to get a second citizenship somewhere. And I was hoping you knew the easiest way to do this.”
She hesitated, as if weighing her options for escape, then relented. “What kind of places are you considering?”
“I’m not sure. But it needs to be somewhere safe and with a credible passport that allows visa-free travel.”
“Well, I’m not an expert in all the different immigration laws.” As soon as she said this, I wondered if I’d ever find what I was seeking. “But tomorrow there are two speakers you may want to see. One is Wendell Lawrence, who’s here from St. Kitts. He used to be an ambassador there. The other is Ramsés Owens, who’s going to discuss economic investment programs in Panama.”
“That’s great. But what I’m really looking for is an expert or a lawyer who knows the rules for every country and can discuss the pros and cons of each one.”
She nodded as if she understood and then lifted the tablecloth, reached underneath, and pulled a big blue book from a large stack. When I saw the cover, I knew I had to own it:
This was my ticket out.