The fabled numbered Swiss bank account is shrouded in mystery – a mystery scarcely less deep than that surrounding their holders' identity.
Bankers shut up like clams at the mere mention of these accounts, as swissinfo.ch discovered. Questions about how many there might be, or what kind of person opens one, get short shrift in Geneva, Zurich or Lugano.
In the public imagination they are associated with spies, scandals and slush funds – quite undeservedly so, according to bankers.
“These accounts are subject to exactly the same duty of diligence as any other banking relationship,” UBS spokesman Dominique Gerster told swissinfo.ch.
“We are obliged to know the origin of the funds and the identity of the beneficiary. If we receive a legal request, we can supply the authorities with information, just as we can for any other account,” he said.
“We always know the identity of our clients, whether the account is a numbered one or not,” said Jan Vonder Mühll, head of media relations at private bank Julius Bär in Zurich. But more he would not say.
If a numbered account does not provide total anonymity, the fact remains that all documents containing the client’s name and address are placed in a safe and only a very limited number of authorised bank officials have access to it.
“A colleague from another branch of our bank couldn’t discover the identity of a client who has an account with us,” an asset manager at the Ticino branch of a cooperative bank told swissinfo.ch.
In contrast to other kinds of accounts, there is no database matching the name of the holder and the account number. “This gives extra protection to the client’s privacy,” he explained.
Last bastion of liberty
Even if the accounts are not – quite – as secret as the public likes to imagine, they are evidently still attractive to some.
“This is one of the last areas where there is still a little bit of freedom in the face of increasing regulation of banking activities,” said Chantal Bourquin, head of communication for the Association of Swiss Private Bankers (ASPB). “That explains why financial institutions are still keen to be discreet.”
James Nason, spokesman for the Swiss Bankers Association in Basel, laughed off the mysterious reputation of such accounts – after all, all accounts have numbers, he joked. But he was no more ready to spill the beans than any of the banks when it came to specific questions.
Even if no one was prepared to give facts and figures, it seems that these accounts are more popular than ever, thanks to recent cases where whistleblowers have revealed the names of suspected foreign tax evaders to their home governments.
“Foreigners are now going for numbered accounts as a precaution, although this kind of banking was already highly valued by wealthy clients in the past,” said the Ticino asset manager, whose bank has benefitted from the flight of funds which weakened some of the major banks.
“There’s no doubt that given the attacks by the Italian government in particular, or to ensure that their details do not fall into the hands of some untrustworthy bank employee, our customers are becoming more and more demanding as far as confidentiality is concerned. And there is nothing better than a numbered account to respond to their expectations,” he explained.
Representatives of the other big banks approached by swissinfo.ch would neither confirm nor deny these remarks. Nason did admit that there could be a trend in this direction but did not say whether the members of his association were already benefitting.
Who needs anonymity?
It is not only for tax reasons that a numbered account can be attractive. In cases of divorce, inheritance or even blackmail it gives the holder additional protection. If there is a court case, the plaintiff has to name the bank where he believes the funds in question are held before proceedings can go ahead.
And that is a major advantage for potential victims of blackmail, such as politicians or celebrities.
Most bank orders pass through several hands within a bank and any bank slip normally includes the client’s name and address, but a numbered account avoids these risks.
It’s a protection which comes at a price, as Nason explained: the administrative procedures are more complicated, and as a consequence the costs are higher.
So most of us will never be any the wiser about them.
Nicole della Pietra, swissinfo.ch (adapted from French by Julia Slater)
A numbered account can consist of a name, a number or a combination of both.
The beneficiary is not anonymous, but only a very limited number of people have access to the details.
To meet strict confidentiality rules, certain precautions are obligatory:
Bank statements must be sent to a postbox, or to a legal representative of the account holder.
There is no cheque book, credit cards or other means of transferring funds: they leave too many traces.
Any payment into the account by a third party must be formally authorised.
Bankers advise clients to avoid accessing their account over the internet, because of security concerns.
The same applies to the telephone; clients are advised to use public call boxes.
Swiss banks and secrecy
Swiss banking secrecy has existed since 1934.
Switzerland is not the only country with numbered bank accounts. They are also available in such places as Austria, Luxembourg, Monaco and Lichtenstein.
A number of websites offer advice to expatriates about opening an account in Switzerland. Some require minimum deposits of hundreds of thousands of francs.
Banks say clients should come to them directly if at all possible.