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Jordan Belfort of Stratton Oakmont explains how his relatives and friends helped move his money from the USA to a Swiss bank using normal flights:

The next day, Aunt Emma flew to Geneva. Two million in cash in her carry-on, which in the big picture was a drop in the Swiss bucket. 'Cause the following month, over the course of six round trips, Chantalle’s family and friends smuggled in over 20 million in cash without even a hiccup.

How can they move large amounts of money from the USA to a Swiss bank without getting caught?

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    Because Swiss bankers, for decades, have been known as the blindest persons of all financial institutions?
    – OldPadawan
    Commented May 3 at 9:44
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    It was 1990s, there was no TSA, smoking was still allowed on planes. Luggage wasn't routinely searched / scanned like it is today. Why would they get caught?
    – Paulie_D
    Commented May 3 at 10:47

2 Answers 2

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In reality, most of Jordan's illicit (cash) money was smuggled into Switzerland by the wife of his business associate. As she was a Swiss national, she wasn't subject to the same level of security when she entered the country and eventually he was wealthy enought to just afford his own plane.

And the Swiss Bombshell went on and on about how Tahad mistreated her, but I stopped listening. It was becoming painfully obvious that she alone couldn’t smuggle nearly enough cash to make a real dent in things. Unless she was willing to stick the cash in her luggage, which I considered too risky, it would take her ten roundtrips to get the full $3 million there. That would mean clearing Customs twenty times, ten on each side of the Atlantic. The fact that she was a Swiss citizen all but assured she would slip into Switzerland without incident, and the chances of her being stopped on the way out of the United States were virtually nil. In fact, unless someone had tipped off U.S. Customs, there was no chance whatsoever.

The Wolf of Wall Street by Jordan Belfort.

His relatives were rarely used as money mules because of the risk of capture, although they were asked to visit Switzerland regularly to give credibility to the accounts belonging to real people.

I said to [Aunt] Patricia, “If possible, I’d like to go to Switzerland tomorrow. But if that’s not good for you, I’ll wait in London as long as you like. I have some business here, anyway. I have a jet waiting at Heathrow that can have us in Switzerland in under an hour. If you want, we can spend the day together there and do some sightseeing or some shopping. “But, again, Patricia”—I paused and looked her dead in the eye—“I want you to promise me you’re going to spend at least ten thousand pounds per month out of the account, okay?”

The film basically conflated those two concepts.

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The events of The Wolf Of Wall Street take place in the 1990s. Traveling on an airplane in the US was very different prior to 9/11. Security was far more lax and differed from airport to airport.

No Homeland Security, no TSA; airport security was private, less standardized, and less coordinated. No body scanners. No restrictions on water bottles. You kept your shoes on. Small knives were ok. ID wasn't triple checked. Heck, I once got on the wrong plane.

An international traveler who does not fit any threat profile would be expected to go through a metal detector and their carry-on x-rayed and that's about it. These scans had nothing like the fidelity and sensitivity we have today. Private airport security was looking for threats to the flight like guns and explosives, maybe drugs, but not evidence for other crimes.

US Customs was far less concerned about what goes out of the country than what came into the country. It's easy even today to breeze through customs with no search.

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    In the source novel, Jordan is extremely clear that trying to move money by commercial fligyts was not a long-term option precisely because customs would eventually catch his mules
    – Valorum
    Commented May 3 at 23:24
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    @Valorum Yes, eventually. Eventually they might get searched. They were definitely taking a risk and playing the odds. Those odds were much, much better back then than now. It's important to provide that context for someone who may have only ever experienced a post-9/11 security environment; you could get away with things then that you cannot today.
    – Schwern
    Commented May 4 at 1:51
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    1/2 "Small knives were ok.": hum, not sure about that though (even if the the answer is right on others points). 1990-1994 (multiple round trips USA-Europe each year)-> I once bought an army knife for my collection (one you couldn't find in Europe) : forbidden even if declared. I had a small lighter (about 1.5 inches long) that looked like a gun (pull the trigger, get a flame) : forbidden and both seized (2 different trips). So there were many check-points (targeted and accurate) before you go under the metal detector.
    – OldPadawan
    Commented May 4 at 5:34
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    2/2 But money you carried was only a fill-a-form and a you-take-my-word-for-it procedure. You couldn't keep it in a hand luggage, as they were opening all cases you may keep with you in the cabin. You would have to put the money in a suitcase, in the cargo compartment.
    – OldPadawan
    Commented May 4 at 5:36
  • @OldPadawan Small knives like a pocket knife weren't seen as a plausible threat. Some airport security would have a little ruler to check the blade length. "Federal Aviation Administration regulations have for many years allowed passengers to carry knives with blades up to four inches long on commercial flights." NYT. Not 100% sure about flights to Switzerland at the time. I don't recall carry-on being hand-searched. It really depended on the airport.
    – Schwern
    Commented May 7 at 22:05

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