TORONTO (Reuters) - French investigators are probing some 1,500 Canadian-registered Swiss bank accounts at HSBC as part of a crackdown on unreported wealth, the head of Canada's revenue agency said on Thursday.
Authorities are looking into accounts obtained from a former HSBC worker who allegedly stole the records from the bank and handed them over to investigators. Canadian tax authorities are working with the French investigatorsù
HSBC, Europe's largest bank, said it was cooperating with the probe.
The paper trails marks the latest breach of strict bank secrecy laws that make Switzerland a popular tax haven, and comes as Canadians are increasingly storing money in offshore tax havens.
"The largest accounts are now being audited, and others will follow. All accounts that are linked to Canadian taxpayers will be reviewed," Keith Ashfield, minister of national revenue, said in a statement entitled "Canada cracks down on unreported offshore account holders".
While it is not illegal for Canadians to hold Swiss bank accounts, they must declare all their income to Canadian tax authorities.
No allegations of wrongdoing by Canadians were mentioned by the minister or in initial media reports about the probe.
Government and academic studies in recent years say that Canadian investments in offshore tax havens has ballooned in the past decade.
"If havens are used to evade legal taxes, the government will use all the force of the law against these citizens." Canadian Prime-Minister Stephen Harper said during a parliamentary back-and-forth with opposition members on the subject of the probe.
Switzerland is the world's biggest wealth manager with 27 percent of global offshore assets, followed by Britain and Luxembourg.
Its status was tarnished last year following a damning U.S. tax probe that revealed UBS had helped Americans seeking to hide money abroad. The U.S. Internal Revenue Service has recovered billions in lost taxes as part of the investigation.
Canada has requested that UBS hand over the names of Canadian clients suspected of tax evasion. A number of Canadians agreed to settlements totaling tens of millions of dollars.
A spokesman for HSBC noted that the bank was also a victim of a criminal act, pointing to the theft of the records.
"HSBC in no way condones tax evasion and is cooperating with authorities while protecting the rights of our clients to confidentiality." said Jezz Far, the bank's global head of media relations.
The documents in the French probe showed that proportionally more of the HSBC bank accounts were held by Canadians than Americans, who had about 1,600 accounts, according to a report by the Globe and Mail newspaper and Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
Canada's population is a little more than one-tenth the U.S. population.
The Globe report also said that as many as 1,800 accounts were being looked at.
It was unclear how much money are in the accounts, but the HSBC employee who gave the documents to investigators told the Globe that clients were required to deposit a minimum of C$500,000 ($488,760) each.
$1=$1.03 Canadian Additional reporting by Solarina Ho and David Ljunggren; Editing by Frank McGurty