By Matthew Allen
As one of the world’s most prominent rock climbers in his day, Royal Robbins liked to erase any traces of his ascents. Following a stint of instructing in Switzerland he did leave something behind – a forgotten bank account that is now one of nearly 4,000 publicly listed as dormant.
Each account has been dormant for at least 60 years and must contain a minimum CHF500. Put together, they bulge with well in excess of CHF52 million ($51 million). Account holders, or their descendants, have a maximum of five years to claim these assets or lose them to the Swiss state.
Robbins, the first climber to ascend the northwest face of the Half Dome in Yosemite National Park and founder of the successful outdoor clothing company that bears his name, now lives in the United States – his home country. He is currently in poor health, hence his wife Liz responded to swissinfo.ch.
“I honestly don’t recall having an account there, but we most likely did,” she said by emailed correspondence. She added that the couple most likely opened the account in the 1960s when Royal was an instructor at the International School of Mountaineering in Leysin, canton Vaud.
That would make the account no more than 50 years old – an anomaly that is difficult to explain as accounts should be dormant for at least 60 years to appear on the website. The Swiss Bankers Association (SBA) said it was down to individual banks to add accounts and that it could not monitor all entries.
Liz Robbins could not recall their bank ever trying to get in touch to say that the account had gone dormant. “I will [now] contact the bank and close the account, thanks to you,” she wrote.
The ease with which Robbins was traced shows that some Swiss banks have not being doing their homework, says André Naef, co-founder of the FAST Search company, which tracks clients on behalf of banks.
The former private banking executive is now helping financial institutions tidy up their dormant accounts and private clients find their Swiss assets.
The 4,000 accounts that have been dormant for at least 60 years are just the tip of the iceberg, according to Naef. Banks are reluctant to say how much money is contained in these accounts, but the Swiss Bankers Association (SBA) says around 2,900 of them hold approximately CHF52 million.
Naef estimates that all dormant accounts – where contact has been lost with the account holder for at least two years – contain at least CHF2 billion.
This might prove a problem from 2018 when Switzerland starts automatically passing on information to other countries to counter tax evasion.
“There might well be some reputational bombs contained in these accounts that draw some awkward questions from other countries,” he told swissinfo.ch. “I’m surprised that many banks are not making much of an effort to clean them up.”
The Swiss Bankers Association (SBA) said tax evasion issues had no part to play in the creation of the dormant accounts website.
“Banks all over the world can be confronted to a situation where the contact to a client is lost,” the SBA said in a written response. “The current legislation was established on the suggestion of the banks to find a legally suitable solution for accounts that were dormant for a very, very long time.”
“When an owner (or a legitimate heir) of a dormant account is found, it is the responsibility of this person to fulfil tax obligations that may arise from this account.”
Indeed, there are other names contained in the accounts that are relatively simple to trace using simple Google searches. For example, Harvey S Firestone of Akron, United States, can surely only be the founder of Firestone Tires, or his son.
In his time, Firestone senior was one of the richest people in the US, rubbing shoulders with Henry Ford and Thomas Edison in the so-called ‘Millionaire’s Club’ in the early 20th century. While there is no evidence to suggest that this (or any) account is undeclared, the fact that the bank did not spot such an easily recognisable name worries Naef.
“It shows that banks simply don’t know and investigate enough about their clients,” he said.
The patchy records on the dormant accounts list makes it nearly impossible to trace some accounts. In some cases, the bank does not even know the name of the client, let alone their birth date, nationality, place of residence or account number.
With regard to the dormant account list, Naef believes that there is enough information to almost certainly find 10% of the account holders, or their descendants, and a reasonable chance of tracking down a further 44%. In the first year of the website, just 5% of accounts were claimed.
On December 16, an initial 149 dormant accounts were due to be turned over to the state unless the assets were claimed. The SBA said it does not know how many accounts have actually been closed, or the amount that has gone to the state.
Dormant bank accounts
Following a change in the banking law, Switzerland set up a website to list the oldest dormant accounts in December 2015. The public record only contains accounts where contact has been lost for at least 60 years.
The website is periodically updated with fresh names. The original list of 2,600, published in December 20015, has already swelled to nearly 4,000. The exact amounts of funds has not been revealed because banks are reluctant to release such information. But the SBA has put an approximate figure of CHF52 million against about three quarters of the accounts.
Account owners, or beneficiaries have between one and five years to claim assets. After that, accounts will be closed and the assets handed to the Swiss state.
Only half of the entries include the client’s nationality. Of these, nearly two thirds are Swiss – the next largest group are French (15%), followed by other countries bordering Switzerland. The United States accounts for less than 1% of listed nationalities.
The oldest recorded birth date is 1808, the youngest 1956 and the average age is 111 years.