Swiss banks hit deadline to reveal hidden accounts to US authorities

Swiss banks hit deadline to reveal hidden accounts to US authorities
People walk past a branch office of Swiss bank UBS in Zurich October 29, 2013.

GENEVA - Some 300 Swiss banks have until the end of Monday to decide whether to hand over records to Washington, in a bid to skirt US legal action for assisting American tax dodgers.

"I can confirm that the deadline is this evening, at the end of the business day," a spokesman for Swiss financial market regulator FINMA, told AFP, refusing to say how many banks had already signed up to take part in the programme.

Washington alleges that Swiss banks have helped US citizens hide billions of dollars in assets from tax authorities, in a row that has soured ties between the two in recent years.

Under a deal recently reached between Bern and Washington to end the dispute, Swiss banks can avoid US prosecution by voluntarily handing over information on American clients, as well as by paying a fine.

The penalty would be equivalent to between 20 and 50 percent of the value of undeclared accounts, depending on when they were opened.

Banks that opened undeclared accounts for US clients before 2009, when Washington fined Switzerland's biggest bank, UBS, US$780 million (S$974 million) for complicity in tax evasion, will face lower penalties.

But the penalties would be higher for those that accepted undeclared assets from US clients after that, according to the agreement.

Banks that do not take part in the disclosure programme also risk far stiffer penalties and prosecution in the United States if Washington discovers that they have indeed helped Americans hide assets.

Swiss Finance Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, who negotiated the deal with Washington, made a last minute appeal Monday to the banks, urging them to join the programme.

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