Monday, July 6, 2015

If You Found a Million Dollars...

Suppose you found a suitcase full of money?  What could you do with it?  Not much, as it turns out.

Suppose you "found" a million dollars in cash.  Maybe it fell off an armored truck.  Maybe some robber buried it in your backyard.   Or maybe you tunneled into a bank.  Whatever.   You have this pile of cash, what do you do with it?

In the movies, they always have a scene with a suitcase full of money.  It is a trope, and people love to see those Benjamins all lined up in neat piles. In fact, it is such a trope, that they actually make "suitcases full of money" for the movie business.  Look at the photo above more carefully.  Each bill says, "for motion picture use only" on it.  And that isn't Franklin on the 100, either.

I suppose everyone dreams once in a while about what it would be like if the armored car ahead of them suddenly had a door pop open and a big old bag of money landed on the hood of your car.  You try to flash your lights and honk your horn, but they just drive off.   It has been known to happen and in most cases, the person who finds the money turns it into the Police.  Why is this?

Well, simply stated, it is awfully hard to spend or invest a lot of cash in this country, without someone asking a lot of questions.   We have laws in place, as well as ways of tracking financial transactions, such that it is darn near impossible to spend that cash - at least on any kind of big-ticket item.

For example, if you deposited the money in the bank, they would have to fill out a form and send it into the IRS, who in turn, would want to know why you suddenly had all this money.  Even if you tried to deposit it in smaller increments, you'd have problems - any transaction over $10,000 has to be reported by government form.

OK, so you try to deposit in a bunch of $9,000 transactions.   This is called structuring and it is illegal per se.   And yes, they can track this and catch you - and they can actually seize the money using civil forfeiture procedures.   You can go to court and argue the money is yours, but you'd have to prove in court that you came upon the money legitimately.

So trying to get the money into our financial banking system is very hard to do.   You'd have to launder the money somehow.   One way is to start a cash business as a "front" and then claim small amounts of the money as income from your business.   You could deposit this over time and pay taxes on it, and thus not raise the ire of the IRS.   However, such cash businesses are audited regularly and of course, money laundering itself is illegal.

Speaking of cash businesses, many small Mom & Pop groceries play this game, where they ask you "do you want a receipt?" and if you say "No" they put the cash you paid into a cigar box under the cash register and then fail to record the sale.   This way their profits look smaller to the IRS and they take home the cash which they keep in a vault at home.   There are a number of problems with this approach, of course, the first being it is illegal (failing to declare income) and the second that it makes you a target for robbers.

Whenever you read about "home invasions" usually they talk about surprising amounts of cash kept in a safe at the home.  Usually, these are immigrants who run cash businesses, and they are hoarding that undeclared income, with predictable consequences.  Sometimes they get killed over it.

So what can you do with this cash?  Not much.   You can't buy a new car with it, as again, the car dealer has to report any sale in cash over $10,000, which limits what kinds of cars you can buy.   You see a lot of people with cash businesses buying secondhand cars from individuals, paying cash, to try to get around this.  Of course, the guy you bought the car from has to deposit that into his bank account, and if it is over $10,000, it gets reported, and then someone starts asking questions.
Well, OK, maybe you can take the money overseas - and deposit it to a Swiss bank account or one of those Cayman Island offshore accounts.   There are a number of problems with this as well.  First, you are only allowed to take $10,000 in cash out of the country at a time.   And since you don't want to check a million dollars in checked luggage (where it would be stolen) you put it in your carry-on bag, where TSA can see it as you are frisked before the flight.

And assuming you can get the money overseas, you are not home free.  International banking has been cleaned up in recent years, and the Swiss "secret" banking system, as well as that of other haven countries, has been pried open.   It's getting harder and harder to keep your money a secret these days.

Perhaps this is a good thing.  I've read that the vast majority of $100 bills are in circulation overseas, where they are used in illegal trades of one sort or another.   Some propose eliminating the $100 bill, as the shear volume of lower denomination bills would make many drug or arms transactions physically difficult.  Instead of a briefcase, you'd need a trunk - or a truck - to haul your money around.

And that is why I have little sympathy for these stories you see in the papers about civil forfeiture.  Some kid is arrested with $20,000 in cash on him, and the police seize it.  "It was my life's savings!" he cries.  And we are supposed to believe that a kid in the ghetto, working as a dishwasher part-time, has saved up $20,000 in cash.  Moreover, we are supposed to swallow his "fear of banks" excuse for carrying that much cash around.   The honest truth is, of course, is that there is a 99.99% probability he is a drug mule, particularly when he is caught on a bus, train, or car, along a well-known drug-running route (Miami/NY or Chicago/LA for example).

We are increasingly a cashless society, and people with legitimate jobs and legitimate businesses just don't have that much cash on hand.  General Motors probably has less "cash" on hand than you have in your wallet.  Everything is paid electronically - by eCheck, regular check (which is just a paper request to make an eCheck these days), wire transfers, credit cards, and whatnot. Very few people pay cash anymore, simply because carrying cash is inconvenient, risky, and time-consuming. Buying gas, for example, is easy with a credit or debit card.   It is a pain-in-the-ass with cash, although some gas stations are experimenting with pumps that accept $20 bills.

So what do you do with your "dream" pile of dough?  I suppose you could use it to buy restaurant meals and become fat as a house.  And you could use it to buy a lot of small things like your groceries and your clothes, and whatnot. Your daily expenses, paid in cash, would free up your income for investment.   But even then, I suspect you might be headed for trouble.  If you make $100,000 a year and are banking all of it, some questions would be raised.

Also, it might look odd if everywhere you went, you paid for everything in crisp $100 bills all with sequential serial numbers.   If the money was ill-gotten or even just "found" and law enforcement had the serial numbers of the bills on file, they literally could zero in on you by tracing the traffic in those bills, which would form a nice target centered on your house.

It seems kind of unfair, to some, that if you "found" a million bucks, you couldn't keep it.   But it is the reality of the world today, which is why I don't understand why folks still try to pull off these "capers" like kidnappings or bank heists, where millions of dollars are stolen.  Once you get the money, there isn't much you can do with it, except get caught.  Maybe in 1965 you could waltz into the Cadillac dealer and plunk down a pile of cash on a new convertible, like they show in the movies.  Today, that simply would not be possible.

In a way, it is like prison escapes.  In movies (again, movies) such as Shawshank Redemption, the hero tunnels out and ends up in Zihuatanejo, Mexico, living happily ever after.  The reality is, of course, that you end up living as a fugitive, unable to obtain money or food, except to steal it, with the end result that you are shot and caught.  Of course, criminals are not that smart, and one of their problems is the inability to think things through.   So, you kidnap Mr. Heineken.   What do you do, once you get all that money?

Again, "back in the day" it was a lot easier to get away with this.  And perhaps in third-world countries, where cash is king, you could spend that money with impunity.   Although I suspect someone at the CIA would figure it out, when you suddenly come into so much money and buy a mansion for yourself.   You might want to check your car for explosives before starting it.

No, it seems that we are destined to work for a living.  Fantasies of suitcases full of cash are just that - fantasies.  The best you could hope for, it seems, if you found such a stash, is to turn it in and hope that no one claims it - and that the money would revert back to you, legitimately.

But you know, it ain't so bad - or so hard - making money "the hard way."  And you don't have to constantly be looking over your shoulder as well.

UPDATE:  Even amounts less than a million dollars are problematic.  A Connecticut man "found" a bank bag with $5000 in it and decided to keep it, even though the bag had the name of the bank on it and a deposit slip inside had the name of the depositor (turns out, it was the local government!).  Now he is facing larceny charges.  Turns out, the correct thing to do is to turn in such "found" money to the Police, and if no one claims it, you may get it back.  But to just keep it?  That's stealing - particularly when it is clear who it belonged to!

Not worth it, for $5000 - or even a million!