Is it possible to become invisible without breaking the law? (Photo: gravitywave)
LOS ANGELES, MID-JUNE 2008
Sitting on a plush couch in the neon-infused nightclub, I asked again:
“What’s it about?”
Neil Strauss glanced around and looked nervous, which I found strange. After all, we’d known each other for close to two years now. In fact, he was – as New York Times bestselling author of The Game and others – one of the first people to see the proposal for The 4-Hour Workweek and offer me encouragement.
“C’mon, dude, give me a break. Don’t you trust me?”
“Guilt. That’s good. Use guilt,” Neil said. But the Woody Allen approach wasn’t working.
“I can’t let the meme out early” he said, “I trust you—I’m just paranoid,” he offered to no one in particular as he downed another RedBull. So I fired a shot in the dark.
“What, are you writing about the 5 Flags or something?”
Neil’s heart skipped a beat and he stared at me for several long seconds. He was stunned.
“What do you know about the 5 Flags?”
I was in.
The 5 Flags
Neil’s new book, Emergency, teaches you how to become Jason Bourne.
Multiple passports, moving assets, lock-picking, escape and evasion, foraging, even how to cross borders without detection (one preferred location: McAllen, Texas, page 390)–it’s a veritable encyclopedia of for those who want to disappear or become lawsuit-proof global citizens…
I proofread the book months ago, and it’s been torture to keep some of the content from you, as I find the topics endlessly fascinating. For example, let’s take the concept of “geoarbitrage” to it’s natural but extreme extension: The 5 Flags. I was first introduced to the 5 Flags approach by a deca-millionaire in San Francisco, but here is Neil’s explanation:
“The way to break free of nationality, according to Schultz’s pamphlet, was to follow a three-flag system. The three flags consist of having a second passport, a safe location for your assets in another country, and a legal address in a tax haven. To these, Hill added a fourth and fifth flag: an additional country as a business base and a number of what he called ‘playground countries’ in which to spend leisure time.”
I never implemented the 5 Flags, but I fantasized about getting a second passport and the infinite options it could provide. Neil actually went out and did it.
I’ll get stopped at the airport in a lock-down; Neil won’t. If the FDIC collapses and bank withdrawals are blocked (as happened in Argentina in 2002 when the currency collapsed due to hyperinflation), I’m out of business; Neil has assets elsewhere.
Do I think the US banks are all going to collapse? Not at all. Do I think it’s intelligent to have a lot of options? Indeed. Do I think it’s fun to read about what billionaires and money launderers do, even if I don’t imitate them? Most definitely.
I’m very happy to offer you an exclusive first look at Emergency. Get this book. The following excerpts will set your mind spinning. Ellipses indicate skipped passages.
Lesson 22 – The Gone With the Wind Guide to Asset Protection
If you wanted to withdraw your entire life savings and move it to a bank in Switzerland, what would you do?
Now that I’d decided to hide my assets offshore, the information from the Sovereign Society conference about the government tracking withdrawals and transfers of more than $10,000 applied to me. It seemed impossible to get the money from my American bank to the Swiss bank Spencer recommended without ringing alarm bells. Even if I moved it in small increments, there would still be a paper trail detailing exactly how much money I’d transferred.
So I did what any resourceful American would do: I bought a book on money laundering.
After all, it isn’t a crime to move money secretly as long as the income’s been reported to the IRS and any other necessary reporting requirements are met. And my intention wasn’t to hide my earnings from the government, customs, or creditors, but to protect it from bank collapses, inflation, seizure, and lawsuits, which required leaving few traces of where it went.
Securing money overseas is not a new idea. Even in the novel Gone With the Wind, Rhett butler keeps his earnings in offshore banks, enabling him to buy a house for Scarlett o’Hara after the Civil War—in contrast to his Southern colleagues, who lose their fortunes due to blockades, inflation, and financial collapse.
For more practical, non-fictional inspiration, I bought Jeffrey Robinson’s 1996 book The Laundrymen. I’d always wondered how empty video stores renting movies for $3 a day could stay in business, and why I’d see Russian thugs running clearly unprofitable frozen yogurt stands on deserted side streets. According to Robinson, it’s because, in order to make illegal funds appear legitimate, crooks will slowly feed the money into the cash registers of a normal business.
“It’s almost impossible to spot an extra $500 coming in daily through the tills of a storefront stocked with 15,000 videos,” he writes. “Nor would anyone’s suspicions necessarily be raised if that same owner ran a chain of twenty video rental stores and, backed up with the appropriate audits, awarded himself an annual bonus of $3.96 million.”
Buried elsewhere in Robinson’s book was the answer I was looking for. The best legal way to surreptitiously move money, it seems, is to buy something that doesn’t lose its cash value when purchased. For example, there’s a black market for people who transfer money by buying expensive jewelry, art, watches, and collectibles, then selling them in their destination country for a small loss—usually no greater than the percentage banks charge for exchanging currencies.
So once AIG private bank in Switzerland returned my phone call—assuming that, unlike Spencer’s [a billionaire who appears earlier in the book] lawyer, they were actually willing to work with me—I planned to go shopping for rare coins.
But if it was all so legitimate, why did it feel so wrong?
While I waited to hear from the Swiss bank, I drove to Burbank to meet with the asset protection lawyers Spencer had recommended, Tarasov and Associates. The receptionist led me into a room with black-and-silver wallpaper where Alex Tarasov sat at a large mahogany desk with a yellow legal pad in front of him. With this pad, he would rearrange my business life forever.
“You did a very smart thing by coming here,” Tarasov said. Twenty- five years ago, he had probably been a frat boy. Maybe even played varsity football. But a quarter century spent sitting at desks scrutinizing legal papers had removed all evidence of health from his skin and physique. “By taking everything you own out of your name, we can hide it from lawyers trying to do an asset search on you.”
“So if they sue me and win, they won’t be able to get anything?”
“We can make it very difficult for them to find the things you own and get at them. It’s not impossible, but the deeper we bury your assets, the more money it’s going to cost to find out where they are. And if we can make that time and cost greater than the worth of the assets, then you’re in good shape.”
Like Spencer had said, this was just insurance. The cost of setting this up would be like taking out a policy against lawsuits.
“So what do you own?” he asked.
I laid it all out for him. “I have a house I’m still paying for. I have some stocks and bonds my grandparents gave me when I was a kid. I have a checking and a savings account. And I have the copyrights to my books.” I paused, trying to remember if I owned anything else. I thought there was more. “I guess that’s about it. I have a secondhand Dodge Durango, I guess. And a 1972 corvette that doesn’t work.”
In truth, I didn’t own that much. But ever since my first college job, standing over a greasy grill making omelets and grilled cheese sandwiches, I had started putting money in the bank. Since then, I’d saved enough to live on for a year or two if I ever fell on hard times or just wanted to see the world. I didn’t want to lose the freedom that came from having a financial cushion and not being in debt for anything besides my house.
“Here’s what we can do,” Tarasov said. He then sketched this diagram on his legal pad:
The stick figure was me. as for the boxes, I had no idea what those were. “These are boxes,” Tarasov explained. I was clearly getting the asset-protection-for-dummies lecture. “Each box represents a different LLC”—limited liability company. “If we can wrap everything in an LLC, and then all those LLCs are owned by a holding company, and that holding company is owned by a trust that you don’t even technically own, then you’re safe.”
I liked that last word. But I didn’t understand the rest of it.
“So we’re just basically making everything really complicated?” I asked.
“That’s the idea. We’ll even put your house in a separate LLC, so that if someone trips and falls, they can’t get at anything else you own.”
When Tarasov was through explaining everything, I couldn’t tell whether I was protecting myself from being scammed or actually being scammed myself. But I trusted Spencer, because he seemed too rich, too smart, and too paranoid to get taken in. So I told Tarasov to start wrapping me up in LLCs until my net-worth was whatever spending money I had in my pocket.
“Once we have these entities set up, we can talk about transferring them to offshore corporations,” Tarasov said as I left.
Lesson 54 – Secrets of Escaped Felons
Kelly Alwood didn’t say a word as he handcuffed my hands behind my back, opened the trunk of a rental car, and ordered me to get inside. With his shaven head, which looked like it could break bottles; his glassy green eyes, which revealed no emotion whatsoever; and the .32 caliber pistol hanging from a chain around his neck, he didn’t seem like the kind of person to cross.
As he shut the trunk over my head, the blue sky of Oklahoma City disappeared, replaced by claustrophobic darkness and new-car smell. Instantly, panic set in.
I took a deep breath and tried to remember what I’d learned. I curled my right leg as far up my body as it would go and dipped my cuffed hands down until I could reach my sock. Inside, I’d stashed the straight half of a bobby pin, which I’d modified by making a perpendicular bend a quarter inch from the top. I removed the pin, stuck the bent end into the inner edge of the handcuff keyhole, and twisted the bobby pin down against the lever inside until I felt it give way.
As I twisted my wrist against the metal, I heard a fast series of clicks, the sound of freedom as the two ends of the cuff disengaged. I released my hand, then made a discovery few people who haven’t been stuffed inside a trunk know: most new cars have a release handle on the inside of the boot that, conveniently, glows in the dark. I pulled on the handle and emerged into the light.
“Thirty-nine seconds,” Alwood said as I climbed out of the trunk. “Not bad.”
I couldn’t believe classes like this even existed. In the last forty-eight hours, I’d learned to hotwire a car, pick locks, conceal my identity, and escape from handcuffs, flexi-cuffs, ducttape, rope, and nearly every other type of restraint.
The course was Urban Escape and Evasion, which offered the type of instruction I’d been looking for to balance my wilderness knowledge. The objective of the class was to learn to survive in a city as a fugitive. Most of the students were soldiers and contractors who’d either been in Iraq or were about to go, and wanted to know how to safely get back to the Green Zone if trapped behind enemy lines.
The class was run by a company called onPoint Tactical. Like most survival schools, its roots led straight to Tom Brown. Its founder, Kevin Reeve, had been the director of Tracker School for seven years before setting off on his own to train navy SEALS, Special Forces units, SWAT teams, parajumpers, marines, snipers, and even SERE instructors. As a bounty hunter, his partner, Alwood, had worked with the FBI and Secret Service to help capture criminals on the Most Wanted list.
As the sun set, we drove to an abandoned junkyard, where Reeve let us practice throwing chips of ceramic insulation from spark plugs to shatter car windows, using generic keys known as jigglers to open automobile doors, and starting cars by sticking a screwdriver in the ignition switch and turning it with a wrench.
As I popped open the trunk on a Dodge with my new set of jigglers, I thought, This is the coolest class I’ve ever taken in my life.
Over a barbecue dinner later that night, Reeve asked why I’d signed up for the course. “I think things have changed for my generation,” I told him. “We were born with a silver spoon in our mouths, but now it’s being removed. And most of us never learned how to take care of ourselves. So I’ve spent the last two years trying to get the skills and documents I need to prepare for an uncertain future.”
I’d never actually verbalized it before. I’d just been reacting and scrambling as the pressure ratcheted up around me. Reeve looked at Alwood silently as I spoke. For a moment, I worried that I’d been too candid. Then he smiled broadly. “You’re talking to the right people. That’s what we’ve been thinking. Kelly has caches all over the country—and in Europe.”
Lesson 28 – Calculate the Odds That You’re In Jail Right Now
ST. KITTS, EASTERN CARIBBEAN
In a few days, I’d be committed to an expense of over half a million dollars, which was more money than I had.
And what was it all for? Symbolic paper. A passport, which is just a teeny little booklet that means nothing to the universe. Realistically, the world wasn’t likely to end in my lifetime. And if it did, everyone on St. Kitts would be just as dead as everyone in America.
If there were a smaller-scale world disaster, things would probably be even worse on an island in the Caribbean, where I was more likely to be a victim of food shortages, droughts, hurricanes, blackouts, and tsunamis. There’s nowhere to run and nowhere to hide on an island—especially one in the smallest country in the Americas. I’d become so focused on my search for a passport—so consumed with escaping the blowback of American politics—that I’d forgotten the survivalist lessons I’d learned on Y2K and 9/11.
Soon, the whole endeavor began to seem like the biggest travesty ever. If something horrible happened in America, would a St. Kitts passport even get me out during a state of emergency? What if it was confiscated by customs agents? Or what if Victor, Maxwell, and Wendell were in collusion and just ripping me off? I didn’t have anyone to protect me here.
Once I’d ridden out that wave of anxiety, a new one formed. I began worrying that I’d blabbed my name and occupation to too many people. If they Googled me and saw the filth I’d written, they might not sell me the apartment or give me a citizenship. And then I’d be stuck in America if anything bad happened.
And so it went, all night, one wave of anxiety after another—half of them spent worrying that I wouldn’t get a passport, the other half spent worrying that I would.
I fell asleep around dawn for a few fitful hours, until I was woken by my cell phone. AIG Private Bank was finally returning my call.
Every day, my small savings were dwindling as the dollar dropped relative not just to the euro, but even to the Caribbean currency here. I never thought I’d see the day when Eastern Europeans came to the United States for the cheap shopping.
“I’d like to inquire about opening a private banking account,” I told the woman.
“Great,” she said, with barely a trace of a Swiss accent. “Let me ask you a few questions.”
“Are you an American citizen?”
“Yes, I am.”
“We don’t deal with American citizens for a few years now.”
“But my friend Spencer Booth is American, and I think he has an account with you.”
“It’s likely an older account. We don’t do business with American citizens anymore. Sorry, good-bye.”
Before I could respond, she had hung up. I felt like an outcast. I couldn’t believe a bank wouldn’t take my money solely because I was American.
I’d noticed that many of the banks I’d researched had special policies for dealing with United States citizens. Even some of the online companies selling vintage travel documents said they no longer shipped to America because U.S. customs agents were opening and confiscating the packages. The government seemed to be sticking its nose everywhere.
In the meantime, I’d discovered a few other interesting facts: according to a report issued by Reporters Without Borders, the United States was ranked as having the fifty-third freest press in the world, tied with Botswana and Croatia. According to the World Health organization, the United States had the fifty-fourth fairest health care system in the world, with lack of medical coverage leading to an estimated 18,000 unnecessary deaths a year. And according to the Justice Department, one in every thirty-two Americans was in jail, on probation, or on parole.
Rather than having actual freedom, it seemed that, like animals in a habitat in the zoo, we had only the illusion of freedom. As long as we didn’t try to leave the cage, we’d never know we weren’t actually free.
That phone call was all it took to let me know I was doing the right thing.
Before going home, I had dinner with Wendell at a restaurant called Fisherman’s Wharf [in St. Kitts, not San Francisco] and thanked him for his help.
After the meal, he patted my shoulder and smiled. “Next time I see you, you’ll be a citizen of St. Kitts and Nevis just like me,” he said. “When you get married, your wife will be a citizen. And when you have kids, so will they.”
He stepped into his SUV, started the engine, then unrolled the window and concluded his thought: “One day,” he said, beaming, “when you come back to America, no one will recognize you. You’ll be a Kittitian.”
At the St. Kitts airport the next morning, I felt like I was returning not to a country but a fortress. “Your country is so tough to get into,” the ticket agent complained as she checked my documents for the flight home. “They make it so hard for us.”
She looked up at me and said it louder, almost with venom, as if it were my fault. “They make it so hard for us.”
She wasn’t alone in her opinion. A survey released the previous month by the Discover America Partnership had found that international travelers considered America the least-friendly country to visit.
“That’s why,” I told her, with the newfound pride that Wendell had instilled in me, “I’m moving here.”
Lesson 59 – Iceland is the New Caribbean
Maybe it was when Bear Stearns became the first brokerage house to be rescued by the government since the Great Depression.
Maybe it was when IndyMac became the fifth American bank to fail in recent months.
Maybe it was when the government gave customs agents authority to confiscate, copy, and analyze any laptop or data storage device brought across the border.
Maybe it was the unshakable sense that the worst was still to come.
But I was no longer alone.
It was a hot summer, and pessimism hung thick in the air. Most people I talked to felt as if they were inching closer to some darkness they couldn’t understand, because they’d never experienced it before and didn’t know what it held.
Even Spencer’s housemate Howard, who had once made fun of us for taking precautionary measures, was now looking into Caribbean islands. As it turned out, he would beat all of us there when his company collapsed and he had to hide from possible indictment.
“I’m so glad we started preparing ahead,” Spencer told me over dinner at the Chateau Marmont, where he was staying in Los Angeles.
Having struck out with the Swiss, I took Spencer’s advice and opened an account with a Canadian bank that had a branch in St. Kitts. Since both Canada and St. Kitts are part of the British Commonwealth, he’d explained, I would have easy access to my money if anything happened in America. Unfortunately, in the process, I discovered that keeping international accounts secret is now illegal: the IRS requires Americans with over $10,000 in foreign accounts to file an annual report disclosing not just the amount of money and the banks it’s kept in, but the account numbers.
Meanwhile, Spencer was moving forward with his ten-year plan. He started an Internet business in Singapore, enabling him to open a private banking account in the country, which he claimed was fast becoming the new Switzerland. Though he hadn’t gotten his St. Kitts passport yet either, Spencer had done more research into buying an island.
“I’m looking at islands in the north, around Iceland, because no one will think of looking for anyone there,” Spencer said, his thick lips spreading into a self-satisfied smile. “If I can get some other B people [billionaires] to go there with me, we can build underground homes and use geothermal energy.”
“What about your submarine?”
“It’s a great way to move between islands undetected, but we’re running out of time. We need to move faster. This is only the beginning.”
“How bad do you think it’s going to get?” Spencer seemed to understand the economy at a higher level than most people did, perhaps because he knew so many of the people who ran it.
“I don’t think the whole country’s going to collapse, but we’re looking at the worst economic disaster in America since the Great Depression. What I’m also concerned about is the increase in violent crime that’s going to accompany this.”
Everywhere I went that summer, the demon of Just in Case seemed to follow me, growling in my ear louder than it ever had, its jaws terrifyingly close to my jugular. I’d learned so much, changed so much, tested myself so much. It now was time to stop preparing, turn around, and face the demon—and my fears—head on.
And a musician would lead me there.
Also — If you’ve ever fantasized about taking time off to globe-trot, I highly recommend Rolf Pott’s Vagabonding. It is one of only two books I took with me when I traveled the world for 18 months. Outside Magazine founding editor Tim Cahill calls Vagabonding “the most sensible book of travel related advice ever written.”
Posted on: March 3, 2009.