EU stepping up capital control enforcement as crisis looms

At the borders of European countries in economic crisis, customs agents say they are seizing increasing amounts of undeclared cash exceeding the €10,000 ($13,750) that each traveler is allowed to carry. They find it stashed in luggage, cake boxes, potato-chip bags, cookie tins and sometimes even children’s pockets. The cash, often in bundles of 500-euro notes, is moving with political currents as some Europeans seek to hide their wealth from rising taxes, high-profile tax investigations, and tightening rules at Swiss banks and other traditional havens.

The agents say they are routinely detaining business travelers who are on their way to European financial capitals, carrying minimal luggage and behaving nervously. “We see professionals and businessmen in insurance and banking, like him, every day,” said Philippe Bock, secretary general of the French solidarity trade union for customs agents.

“Three hundred fifty thousand euro was nothing exceptional,” Mr. Bock said. “Every month it passes like that, and there’s more and more money because of the crisis.”

For decades, banking secrecy laws in Switzerland made banks there a refuge for foreigners hoping to keep assets away from official notice. But Switzerland signed a treaty in October providing for the automatic exchange of tax information with depositors’ home countries, and bankers have been warning clients to make tax declarations or risk having their Swiss accounts closed. That has left many would-be tax avoiders with little choice but to move their money around the old-fashioned way.

Cash seizures by French customs agents have soared over the last decade even as budget cuts have thinned the agents’ ranks by 25 percent. The total for the first quarter of 2013 was up sixfold from a year earlier, to €103 million, most of it from a man who tried to drive into France from Switzerland with €86 million in bearer bonds, which are tantamount to cash. On an average day in 2012, French agents seized €300,000, 50 percent more than the 2011 average, according to government figures. And the customs agency estimates that it catches only 5 percent of the undeclared cash crossing the country’s borders.

The precautions are growing more elaborate, and the finds more eye-catching. In February, inspectors on the fast train between Zurich and Paris stopped a Spanish traveler who was carrying €1.8 million ($2.5 million), made up entirely of 500-euro notes. Those bills, the largest denomination in circulation, have come to be nicknamed Bin Ladens for their association with money laundering and illicit transactions.

The bulk of the seized Spanish cash is in euros — about €17.5 million so far this year — but some seizures involve other currencies, including American dollars, Korean won and Chinese renminbi. Increasingly, it seems, intermediaries are being used to move the money, according to Eladio Barrado, a spokesman for Siat, the main union representing employees of Spain’s national tax agency.

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