Jajan believes the most important service he offers is reassurance. “The client wants an adviser here; he wants to feel comfortable knowing he has someone he can trust here in the United States.” Jajan’s firm offers a range of management functions. “We recently purchased a vacuum cleaner,” he told me. “It was for one of our high-net-worth clients that bought $15 million worth of property this year. We’re not about to say, ‘We don’t do that, we’re lawyers.’ ”
But mostly, Jajan sets up corporate vehicles like LLCs. “Those structures can be simple or they can be complex, depending on different factors,” he said. While putting the deed in the name of a corporate entity has practical advantages—it can be part of a strategy to avoid estate taxes or potential lawsuits, a consideration for rental properties—the tactic is also designed to ensure secrecy. All he needs to do a deal is a simple corporate structure and a wire transfer to his escrow account. “Ninety-nine percent of the time,” Jajan told me, “they already have the money outside of their home country.”
THE SHADOWY PART
Extreme wealth demands extremely elaborate wealth management, and anyone who has a few million in spare cash will probably already have an entrée to the cloistered world of private banking. An anonymous high-net-worth client of Credit Suisse, who spoke to U.S. Senate investigators after taking advantage of an amnesty for tax cheats, described the process by which he would manage his funds when visiting Zurich. A remote-controlled elevator would take him to a bare meeting room where he and his private banker would discuss his money; all printed account statements would be destroyed after the visit.
The theatrical secrecy is designed to build personal trust between such bankers and their clients, which is especially vital when the goal of the transactions is to conceal assets from the prying eyes of rivals, vengeful spouses, or tax collectors. Moving the money itself is a relatively simple matter: A wire or a suitcase can convey cash from China to Singapore, or from Russia to an EU member state like Latvia, and once the funds have made it to a “white list” country, they can usually move onward without triggering alarms. Concealing the true ownership of a property or a bank account is trickier. That’s where the private bankers, wealth advisers, and lawyers earn their exorbitant fees.
Behind a New York City deed, there may be a Delaware LLC, which may be managed by a shell company in the British Virgin Islands, which may be owned by a trust in the Isle of Man, which may have a bank account in Liechtenstein managed by the private banker in Geneva. The true owner behind the structure might be known only to the banker. “It will be in some file, but not necessarily a computer file,” says Markus Meinzer, a senior analyst at the nonprofit Tax Justice Network. “It could be a black book.” If an investor wants to sell the property, he doesn’t have to transfer the deed—an act that would create a public paper trail. He can just shift ownership of the holding company.
Recently, scrutiny from the United States has punctured some of the traditional secrecy of Swiss banks. But that has just pushed clients to boutique advisory firms, often run by the same personnel. “Banks like working with those firms,” Meinzer says, “because they are then legally in the clear, without the risk of going to prison.” As international blacklisting has pushed some offshore locales toward greater legal compliance, new havens have arisen. New Zealand trusts offer similar secrecy to those of the Caymans, without the stigma.
It’s a sophisticated, well-oiled system that rarely requires crude subterfuge. Though U.S. authorities track all transfers over $10,000, a wire into a real-estate lawyer’s escrow account should look perfectly routine. “A lot of times, I don’t even know where my clients are from,” says the lawyer Bruce Cohen. “But I know that certain countries are very careful about the money that leaves their country.”
There is nothing illegal—at least from the destination nation’s perspective—about sending money from an anonymous offshore bank account to purchase property in America. On the contrary, it’s an everyday occurrence. That is precisely why experts say that property investment is a favored route for money laundering, a crime that depends on the outward appearance of legitimacy. The laundering process typically happens in stages: Illegal cash enters the world financial system somewhere and is funneled into a maze of accounts and shell companies, a process called “layering.” Finally, at the other end, funds are integrated into a seemingly respectable investment—like a luxury condo.