DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And let's turn now to some shadowy corners of the world of finance. NPR's Planet Money team has been digging into the secretive world of shell companies, wondering what people actually do with these things. Shell companies can be offshore or right here in the United States. They have some very legitimate uses, some totally sketchy uses, and some uses that seem to fall in between. David Kestenbaum looked into one practice called asset protection.
DAVID KESTENBAUM, BYLINE: Asset protection, simply put, is a way of hiding your wealth. Maybe you're a surgeon worried a patient might sue you and take everything you have. Or maybe you want to hide money from an ex-wife.
BOBBY CASEY: Or future ex-wives, ex-husbands, that's always a big concern.
KESTENBAUM: This is Bobby Casey, managing director at Global Wealth Protection. He lives in Latvia, so we spoke over Skype. Bobby Casey, by the way, that is his real name. Not everyone at the company likes to use their real name. The director of operations, for instance, goes by Adam Wolf. There's a photo of him on the website, but you can't see his face. He's riding a motorcycle, dressed in black with a helmet on and sunglasses.
CASEY: Actually, it's kind of funny. I told him, I said you need to get me a photo, and the first one he sent me was like a - it was just a photo of somebody with the giant, like, Magnum PI sunglasses and a huge fake mustache. It was quite funny. I called him up. I said: Man, I can't run that. Give me something real. That's ridiculous.
KESTENBAUM: Asset protection is one of those professions where you can make enemies. Bobby Casey says he's simply trying to help people build fortresses around the wealth they've earned. Say you own a piece of property with a few rental units, and you're worried about a lawsuit from a tenant who claims to have slipped on the stairs.
Well, the first step, he says, is you place the property - say, 123 Main Street - in a legal entity called a trust. Now when some lawyer tries to look in public records to find out who owns your building...
CASEY: They'll find nothing, basically. They'll find 123 Main Street is owned by 123 Main Street Land Trust.
KESTENBAUM: Now the lawyer has to go get a court order to get the trust documents, which is when he encounters the second layer of your financial fortress. The trust is owned not by you but by some company in Delaware, which also does not have your name attached to it.
CASEY: It's kind of like the "Alice in Wonderland" down the rabbit hole. It makes it very complicated to chase down the owners.
KESTENBAUM: So how long would this whole thing take for them to actually even just figure out who owned that building?
CASEY: It could take weeks or even months.
KESTENBAUM: The whole point is to put up barriers so people won't even attempt to try to sue you. And we haven't even gotten to the offshore possibilities. Casey recommends all his clients keep some money out of the country entirely, maybe set up a shell company on the beautiful Caribbean island of Nevis with a bank account in Latvia.
CASEY: Now you're not dealing with just one country, but you're dealing with three different countries, right - the U.S. court system, Nevis court system, and the Latvian court system.
KESTENBAUM: Now a lawyer trying to penetrate your fortress might have to fly to Nevis. And then even if the lawyer wins...
CASEY: Then they have to fly to Latvia to do it all over again.
KESTENBAUM: Bobby Casey paints a picture of a world with two kinds of people in it. There are the people with money and there are the people he calls financial predators, trying to sue the people with money. But you could argue this is why we have the court system, to figure out who is a predator and who is a victim. Do you feel like the U.S. legal system gets things right at least half the time?
CASEY: That's a tough question, you know.
KESTENBAUM: Well, I just mean if you think it's right even half the time, and you've helped someone hide their assets, then half the time that money really is due somebody else.
CASEY: I would say there is way more frivolous, unjustified litigation in the U.S. than there is justified litigation.
KESTENBAUM: People would dispute that, but as one lawyer said to me: Asset protection, it's legal. Is it moral? That's a question for the bishop. David Kestenbaum, NPR News.
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