PARIS/ZURICH (Reuters) - The Paris offices of UBS UBSN.VX have been searched as part of a probe into allegedly aiding tax evasion in a sign that a months-long investigation into the Swiss bank’s French wealth management activities may be gathering steam.
The evidence-gathering move was part of a broader enquiry which saw the bank’s offices in Bordeaux, Strasbourg and Lyon searched in July.
Switzerland’s strict banking secrecy rules, which have helped build a $2 trillion offshore financial sector, have infuriated cash-strapped governments elsewhere as they try to stop tax evasion by wealthy citizens.
“The examining magistrate Guillaume Daieff indeed went to the Parisian headquarters of UBS France as part of his enquiry,” the bank said in a statement, adding that the bank was cooperating with the probe.
Agence France Presse, citing a source, reported that two people had already been placed under investigation as part of the probe.
The search was carried out by about 10 investigators from France’s National Customs Service, Agence France Presse said.
Prosecutors in April opened a preliminary investigation into the French activities of UBS, suspected of marketing financial placements aimed at allowing subscribers to hide funds from tax inspectors.
Concerns about wealthy French citizens trying to shelter their funds from taxes have been on the rise in recent months, with a Senate committee dedicated to tax evasion and money laundering questioning several prominent bankers earlier this year.
UBS’s own wealth management practices earlier this year were the subject of a book entitled “Those 600 billion that France is missing”, which alleged that its French unit sheltered an average of 85 million euros ($111 million) of client funds a year from taxes.
France is just the latest instance in which UBS’s private banking practices have come under scrutiny.
In 2009, the bank was forced to pay a fine and release the names of 4,500 clients to U.S. officials to end a damaging tax probe.
Reporting by Katharina Bart and Christian Plumb; Editing by James Regan and Mike Nesbit