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Secret's out on the Swiss bank account

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Swiss accountsThe secret Swiss bank account is no longer what is used to be.

For years the accounts were the basis of plots both real and imagined in which people hid cash to avoid the taxman or the police if the gains were from crime.

But prior to a midnight New Year's Eve deadline, many of the Swiss banks agreed to divulge to the U.S. government which Americans have accounts here to avoid prosecution on charges of helping them evade taxes.

As many as 40 of Switzerland's approximately 300 banks are reported to have said publicly that they would voluntarily hand over closely guarded client information to the Department of Justice in return for prosecutorial immunity.

After decades of facilitating, even if not explicitly engineering, the shielding of undeclared assets from foreign tax authorities, a Swiss banking industry built on a legacy of absolute secrecy on behalf of customers may start singing like a canary.

"What's really clear is that this (Justice) program is at the limit of what is tolerable for banks in Switzerland," says Sindy Schmiegel, of the Swiss Bankers Association, in Basel.

"Participation is very costly, and banks that join the plan may still face huge fines," she says. "It's important to remember that banking secrecy in Switzerland was not introduced for tax reasons."

Any adult can open a bank account in Switzerland no matter their citizenship. The banks would normally refuse entreaties from foreign governments looking to see if citizens hiding cash were among the account-holders identified by numbers.


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