ZURICH (Reuters) - A U.S. criminal investigation into how Swiss banks helped wealthy Americans hide their money has had an unexpected side effect: shaking out scores of tax cheats among the Swiss themselves.
Secrecy laws in Switzerland, the world’s largest offshore financial center with trillions in assets, have been under siege in recent years from massive international pressure, including long-running investigations by U.S., German and French prosecutors.
Despite widespread indignation in Switzerland over the campaign, and efforts to enshrine data privacy for residents into the constitution, data shows the Swiss have been coming clean in record numbers on their own undeclared funds.
A total of 15,039 Swiss residents have filed voluntary disclosures since the government introduced an amnesty for its own citizens five years ago, according to Swiss tax data.
Officials say that number is set to rise as voluntary disclosures from 2013 and last year are processed by cantonal authorities and included in the overall federal tally.
Tax officials in the canton of Zurich said voluntary disclosures had jumped to 1,500 last year from an average of 350 per year before the amnesty was launched, and that they took in 1.06 billion Swiss francs ($1.04 billion) in lost taxes last year.
“The department of finance attributes this rise to the intensified public debate about undeclared funds and assets as well as the planned changes in law related to them,” Zurich’s finance department said on Tuesday.
Switzerland’s tax system is based on citizens self-declaring their income and asset values such as stocks, bonds and property. The country has relatively low taxes and incentives such as a reimbursable stamp tax to encourage taxpayers to declare.
Banking secrecy for Swiss citizens has become controversial since the country joined the growing ranks of those agreeing to share tax information on foreigners with accounts here. The Swiss government is expected to put a draft law on the so-called automatic exchange of information from 2018 into consultation this month.
Statistics on how many Swiss citizens cheat their taxes are non-existent, and estimates hard to come by.
The country’s largest banks UBS and Credit Suisse have both been successfully pursued by U.S. prosecutors. A handful of other Swiss banks including Julius Baer and Geneva-based Pictet & Cie are still under U.S. criminal investigation.
Reporting by Katharina Bart; editing by Andrew Roche