Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life - Neil Strauss (2009)
Part III. ESCAPE
If you wanted to withdraw your entire life savings and move it to a bank in Switzerland, what would you do?
Now that I’d decided to hide my assets offshore, the information from the Sovereign Society conference about the government tracking withdrawals and transfers of more than $10,000 applied to me. It seemed impossible to get the money from my American bank to the Swiss bank Spencer recommended without ringing alarm bells. Even if I moved it in small increments, there would still be a paper trail detailing exactly how much money I’d transferred.
So I did what any resourceful American would do: I bought a book on money laundering.
After all, it isn’t a crime to move money secretly as long as the income’s been reported to the IRS and any other necessary reporting requirements are met. And my intention wasn’t to hide my earnings from the government, customs, or creditors, but to protect it from bank collapses, inflation, seizure, and lawsuits, which required leaving few traces of where it went.
Securing money overseas is not a new idea. Even in the novel Gone With the Wind, Rhett Butler keeps his earnings in offshore banks, enabling him to buy a house for Scarlett O’Hara after the Civil War—in contrast to his Southern colleagues, who lose their fortunes due to blockades, inflation, and financial collapse.
For more practical, non-fictional inspiration, I bought Jeffrey Robinson’s 1996 book The Laundrymen. I’d always wondered how empty video stores renting movies for $3 a day could stay in business, and why I’d see Russian thugs running clearly unprofitable frozen yogurt stands on deserted side streets. According to Robinson, it’s because, in order to make illegal funds appear legitimate, crooks will slowly feed the money into the cash registers of a normal business.
“It’s almost impossible to spot an extra $500 coming in daily through the tills of a storefront stocked with 15,000 videos,” he writes. “Nor would anyone’s suspicions necessarily be raised if that same owner ran a chain of twenty video rental stores and, backed up with the appropriate audits, awarded himself an annual bonus of $3.96 million.”
Buried elsewhere in Robinson’s book was the answer I was looking for. The best legal way to surreptitiously move money, it seems, is to buy something that doesn’t lose its cash value when purchased. For example, there’s a black market for people who transfer money by buying expensive jewelry, art, watches, and collectibles, then selling them in their destination country for a small loss—usually no greater than the percentage banks charge for exchanging currencies.
So once AIG Private Bank in Switzerland returned my phone call—assuming that, unlike Spencer’s lawyer, they were actually willing to work with me—I planned to go shopping for rare coins.
But if it was all so legitimate, why did it feel so wrong?
While I waited to hear from the Swiss bank, I drove to Burbank to meet with the asset protection lawyers Spencer had recommended, Tarasov and Associates. The receptionist led me into a room with black-and-silver wallpaper where Alex Tarasov sat at a large mahogany desk with a yellow legal pad in front of him. With this pad, he would rearrange my business life forever.
“You did a very smart thing by coming here,” Tarasov said. Twenty-five years ago, he had probably been a frat boy. Maybe even played varsity football. But a quarter century spent sitting at desks scrutinizing legal papers had removed all evidence of health from his skin and physique. “By taking everything you own out of your name, we can hide it from lawyers trying to do an asset search on you.”
“So if they sue me and win, they won’t be able to get anything?”
“We can make it very difficult for them to find the things you own and get at them. It’s not impossible, but the deeper we bury your assets, the more money it’s going to cost to find out where they are. And if we can make that time and cost greater than the worth of the assets, then you’re in good shape.”
Like Spencer had said, this was just insurance. The cost of setting this up would be like taking out a policy against lawsuits.
“So what do you own?” he asked.
I laid it all out for him. “I have a house I’m still paying for. I have some stocks and bonds my grandparents gave me when I was a kid. I have a checking and a savings account. And I have the copyrights to my books.” I paused, trying to remember if I owned anything else. I thought there was more. “I guess that’s about it. I have a secondhand Dodge Durango, I guess. And a 1972 Corvette that doesn’t work.”
In truth, I didn’t own that much. But ever since my first college job, standing over a greasy grill making omelets and grilled cheese sandwiches, I had started putting money in the bank. Since then, I’d saved enough to live on for a year or two if I ever fell on hard times or just wanted to see the world. I didn’t want to lose the freedom that came from having a financial cushion and not being in debt for anything besides my house.
“Here’s what we can do,” Tarasov said. He then sketched this diagram on his legal pad:
The stick figure was me. As for the boxes, I had no idea what those were. “These are boxes,” Tarasov explained. I was clearly getting the asset-protection-for-dummies lecture. “Each box represents a different LLC”—limited liability company. “If we can wrap everything in an LLC, and then all those LLCs are owned by a holding company, and that holding company is owned by a trust that you don’t even technically own, then you’re safe.”
I liked that last word. But I didn’t understand the rest of it.
“So we’re just basically making everything really complicated?” I asked.
“That’s the idea. We’ll even put your house in a separate LLC so that if someone trips and falls, they can’t get at anything else you own.”
When Tarasov was through explaining everything, I couldn’t tell whether I was protecting myself from being scammed or actually being scammed myself. But I trusted Spencer, because he seemed too rich, too smart, and too paranoid to get taken in. So I told Tarasov to start wrapping me up in LLCs until my net worth was whatever spending money I had in my pocket.
“Once we have these entities set up, we can talk about transferring them to offshore corporations,” Tarasov said as I left.
It sounded exciting, though I worried that by the time he was through charging me for all this, I wouldn’t have any money left to hide.
Either way, my net worth would still be zero.
My next order of business was long overdue: to make my computer as secure as possible. That is, if my Internet searches for second citizenship options and private Swiss banks hadn’t already caught the government’s attention. For this, I enlisted the help of Grandpa.
He had responded instantly to the e-mail I sent after the Sovereign Society conference and, like a true money-minded PT, tried to sell me a series of books he wrote, Bye Bye Big Brother, for the bargain price of $750. Fortunately, I found a much cheaper abridged version his publisher was selling online.
In combination with a few Internet resources, I used the chapter titled “Secure Internet Communications” as my primer on computer safety. I spent an entire day downloading and installing encryption programs, firewalls, spyware destroyers, and software that supposedly enabled me to surf the Internet without being traced or tracked. Eventually, I hoped to use two computers: one solely for going online and a second laptop with all my data but no means of connecting to the Internet.
Though Grandpa’s computer advice made me feel more secure, my long e-mail correspondence with him fanned other flames of paranoia. “Convicting someone [who’s taking the steps you are] would bring glory to some little assistant D.A. or federal attorney,” he warned. “The way out is not necessarily leaving at once, but just be ready to move ass and assets at the first whiff of shit coming your way.”
I thought back to a year earlier, when I felt like my life and livelihood were at the mercy of terrorists, the government, and the economy. Though those threats had grown even worse since then, I had become stronger, more stable, more informed, more resilient. All I needed to do now was visit Wendell in St. Kitts. Then I’d truly be able to leave when, as Grandpa put it, the first whiff of shit came my way.
I was almost free.
But, as Spencer continued to remind me every time we spoke, I still wasn’t safe.