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Cash Is No Longer "King"... It’s a Criminal Suspect

Collapse of The Dollar

Cash was king. These days, it is more of a headache than it is royalty.

When it comes to larger purchases, the advantages once conferred by carrying a wad of green stuff in your wallet are all but gone. Justice Department officials in the U.S. (and officials elsewhere) are ratcheting up their decades-long war on cash. To hear them tell it, cash is mostly useful for terrorists and low-down criminals. Your use of any significant amount of cash can now make you guilty in the eyes of the law until you prove the transaction was legitimate.

Maybe you can persuade your bank teller. Attempt to withdraw or deposit a few thousand dollars in cash, and you’ll likely get the chance. Expect questioning about the purpose of the cash. If you answer with “it isn’t any of your business” or something equally unsatisfactory, then you will be inviting her to file a Suspicious Activity Report. Banks and a select group of other businesses filed more than 1.6 million of them in 2013.

Or, the teller might decide to call the authorities right away. The head of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, Leslie Caldwell, would certainly like to see banks drop a dime on customers more often. While speaking at the ACAMS Anti-Money Laundering and Financial Crime Conference on March 16th, she said:

“The vast majority of financial institutions file Suspicious Activity Reports when they suspect that an account is connected to nefarious activity. But, in appropriate cases, we encourage those institutions to consider whether to take more action: specifically, to alert law enforcement authorities about the problem, who may be able to seize the funds, initiate an investigation, or take other proactive steps.“

Caldwell’s statement hints at what is really an escalation of a decades-old policy of enlisting banks to rat out customers.

It started with the Bank Secrecy Act in 1970. The law required banks to report transactions of more than $10,000. If you have been into a bank trying to withdraw a few thousand in cash, you may have sensed banks aren’t encouraging that kind of activity. You likely encountered days of delay while the bank ordered cash and got funny looks and probing questions from tellers.

While the treatment you get from your bank may be awkward, there may be worse coming from the police. Authorities who find significant quantities of cash in your possession may assume the worst about you and seize your cash. Civil asset forfeiture is on the rise and no one with a badge has to convict you of a crime to take your belongings. Victims tend to be assumed guilty until proven innocent.

There was a time when offering cash put you in a strong bargaining position. Sellers appreciated having good funds and avoiding the fees associated with taking a payment by credit card.

Today, buyers and sellers using cash face increasing hassles, scrutiny, and risks. Add that to the perpetual inflation assaulting the purchasing power of whatever cash you hold -- and cash is anything but king.

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