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Monday, Nov. 19, 2001. Page 11

Offshore Banking Bothers

By Russell Working

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LIMASSOL, Cyprus -- This island is famous as an offshore haven, a place where Germans register shipping firms and Russian tycoons stash their dollars to avoid the taxman at home.

But my recent attempt to place $10,000 in a Cypriot bank left me with a frozen account and a newfound relationship with my Visa credit card's fraud department. My card is blocked, and for a while I was borrowing cash from friends to survive.

They say it is dangerous when reporters do math. It is equally risky when a journalist who often covers business and economics tries to work out matters of personal finance.

This story starts, as so many seedy transactions do, in the Russian Far East. As a freelance reporter living in Vladivostok for five years, I wrote for publications ranging from the Japan Times to BusinessWeek.

But I never opened a bank account in Vladivostok. Deposits are uninsured, and banks often fold, taking the cash with them.

When one bank collapsed, it offered its depositors scented soap and nylon stockings in lieu of their money. And bankers, accustomed to clients depositing bricks of banknotes wrapped in rubber bands, wouldn't know what to do if I brought in a slip of paper marked with curious ciphers and the phrase "pay to the order of Russell Working."

So I directed the checks to my father, who deposited them in my bank account in California. When I needed cash, I withdrew it on my Visa card. If this was an awkward way of doing business, I never noticed. I didn't pay Russian taxes, life was cheap in a privatized apartment, and the cash piled up.

Perhaps I lost touch with how Westerners do business as I exchanged money on the black market or traveled to Mongolia or Kyrgyzstan with hundred dollar bills in my wallet (you can't hire a translator in Ulan Bator or a driver in Bishkek with traveler's checks).

However, when I moved to Cyprus recently, I was relishing the prospect of fiscal normality: writing a check for prepackaged cut of meat in a supermarket rather than handing over rubles to a guy who hacks apart sides of beef with an ax in an outdoor bazaar.

Like all shady operators, I needed the money fast. I had to prove to the Cypriot authorities that I was a financially stable journalist and not a drifter who planned to sleep in vineyards and steal eggs from hen houses.

So I logged onto the web site of my bank -- let's call it Billy the Kid Bank -- and transferred $10,000 to my Masked Man Plus Visa Card. For good measure, I phoned "Amber" at the bank and warned her that I planned to withdraw the cash here. "No problem," she said. "I'll mark it here and you won't have any trouble."

Ah, Amber. We were young and naive then, weren't we? Or did you spot me as a sucker, like one of those guys who wander into a stockbrokers office with a price tag dangling from his baseball cap and a paper bag stuffed with grocery receipts and $143,000 in twenties?

In any case, I transferred the cash into my new Cypriot account. And, Amber, you'll laugh because Billy bank blocked my credit card and dropped my line of credit to zero. Meanwhile, my Cypriot account was frozen while I waited for a letter from Billy asserting that I was a longtime, stable client who wouldn't ever do something stupid enough to, say, get his credit card blocked.

Now when I call Billy bank, I don't get to talk to Amber anymore. Instead, someone named Steve or Karen or Anna asks for my card number, and then says, "Oh, my gosh," and transfers me to the fraud department. There I argue my case with a short-tempered smoker named Norma or a former cop called Rick. I know he's a cop because he frequently says, "Yes, sir," or, "You'll have to take that up with my superior, sir." Or maybe he's an FBI agent with a financial crimes unit.

As for my Cypriot bank, even though the letter from Billy bank finally arrived at the end of last week, I still haven't managed to obtain a credit or debit card, forcing me to scrape together pocket change in order to buy a bag of pita bread after hours.

Do crooks really launder money offshore? If so, please tell me how, Amber, and we'll do things right the next time.

Russell Working is a freelance journalist based in Limassol, Cyprus.

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