Snowden on the lam: How much does it cost to run?

Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old former technical assistant for the CIA, revealed details of top-secret surveillance conducted by the United States' National Security Agency regarding telecom data.

In the movie "Catch me if You Can" (based on a true story), Leonardo DiCaprio ran around the world using fake identities, forging checks as he went. People on the lam don’t usually have that luxury.  

“Your first thought,” says Michael Rabern, president of private investigation service International Counter Intelligence Services, “is you’re gonna use your nest egg and spend that on hotels and eating out, and after a while the pressure starts to mount, and you have to start being more frugal.”  

How long savings will go -- Edward Snowden was making between $122,000 and $200,000 a year, so presumably he has plenty -- depends on tastes and location.

“If you are used to luxury and are going to live in the Caribbean in five-star hotels, versus living on the fringes of society, there’s going to be a difference,” says Alberto Carillo, president of Mexico Connection Investigations. He tracks down people on the run in Mexico. “You could live a very comfortable life here in Mexico on the run for say $30,000-$60,000 a year," Carillo says.  

Snowden has already demonstrated his taste for five star hotels in Hong Kong. But moving his assets around will be tricky. Using the international credit or banking system is not going to be an option.

“No points or frequent flyer miles,” says Rabern of ICS. “He’s probably done his homework, so he could be under other individuals’ names. He could have transferred money over in diamonds. Diamonds are very easy to carry,” suggests Carillo.

The digital currency Bitcoin is another option. But in reality, money probably won’t be a problem for Snowden, says Rabern.   Snowden has info that foreign governments would love to know. “There’s gonna be a line of bad guys  cash in hand wanting to pay him to get secrets," says Carillo. "Not to mention the charitable donations he will likely receive from people who support him.

Money aside, because of his high profile, it’s unlikely that simply hiding will work out for Snowden. Too many people want him.   Carillo says he’ll probably need to get safe haven in some way from a government, somewhere.

“I think no matter where he goes he’s gonna seek the backing of that particular government because he’s gonna need it," Carillo says. "Sooner or later he's gonna be fighting extradition, and wherever he goes hes gonna need political support.”

If he does try to hide, ironically, it's not the money trail that’s most likely to get him caught if he’s done his homework. It’s homesickness.

“It’s very hard to let go of your past, your friendships, your family, your friends,” says Carillo.

About the author

Sabri Ben-Achour is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the New York City bureau. He covers Wall Street, finance, and anything New York and money related.

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