France holding 'stolen' Swiss data

10th December 2009, Comments 0 comments

An HSBC employee stole client data and fled to France.

Geneva -- Some of the evidence gathered against French citizens being investigated for alleged tax evasion was stolen from a Swiss bank by a dishonest employee, it emerged on Wednesday.

The claim, not denied by Paris, could embarrass French officials as they pressure Switzerland over its banking secrecy laws and attempt to force their own taxpayers to admit to deposits held there.

News of the theft was broken by the French daily Le Parisien, which said a 38-year-old Franco-Italian computer expert had stolen client data from an HSBC Private Bank branch in Geneva and had fled to France.

HSBC confirmed it had filed a criminal complaint to the Swiss authorities after police had conducted surveillance on an employee, and added that the information taken had concerned fewer than 10 clients.

"This case goes back to 2008, when there was theft of banking data at HSBC Geneva, but that concerns only a small amount of data," Martin Maurer, who heads Switzerland's association of foreign banks, told AFP.

In August, France announced that it has a list of 3,000 of its citizens who it alleges are using Swiss banking secrecy laws to conceal profits from tax evasion and in some cases launder the proceeds of crime.

The suspects have been given until the end of 2009 to pay overdue tax and will otherwise face an audit on a total sum which Budget Minister Eric Woerth estimates at EUR 3 billion (CHF 4.5 billion, USD 4.3 billion).

Woerth appeared to implicitly confirm that the 3,000-name list includes data on the HSBC clients whose details were stolen in Geneva, but insisted France had not improperly acquired any information used in its investigation.

"The list comes from many sources, not only that one," he said, when asked about the Le Parisien report. "Nothing was paid for; this was information that was spontaneously acquired in the course of tax investigations."

Pressed on whether stolen data was included in the case file, he said, "That source could be part of it, but I'm not confirming that, that's not my role.

"Today this file is legally compiled. It will be used in accordance with French law," he said, briefing reporters after a cabinet meeting.

According to Le Parisien, the fugitive, whom it identified simply as "Antoine", is living in the Nice region of France and is cooperating with French investigations into money laundering as well as on tax evasion.

Named in the report as having opened a criminal investigation, the Nice regional state prosecutor, Eric de Montgolfier, told AFP, "I have no comment to make on this case and I find it irresponsible that someone has done so."

Since the start of the global economic crisis Switzerland has come under increasing pressure to reform its banking laws, which attract vast sums in deposits to the Alpine federation but frustrate foreign tax officials.

Switzerland's federal prosecutor's office was not available for comment and the finance ministry said it "would not comment on an ongoing case."

The French case appears to have parallels with a massive tax fraud probe launched in Liechtenstein after an employee of the LGT Bank stole data of foreign clients and sold the list to German authorities.

It will also recall the recent case involving the Swiss bank UBS, which was targeted by US authorities and forced to reveal the names of 4,450 American account holders alleged to be conducting tax fraud.

AFP / Expatica

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