According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), "There is no limit on the amount of money that can be taken out of or brought into the United States." But Victoria Faren, a 78-year-old retiree who lives in Clearwater, Florida, thought there might be. So just to be safe, Faren hid the $40,700 in cash she was carrying with her to the Philippines—money from the recent sale of her home—in her underwear and carry-on bag. When a CBP officer asked how much money she was carrying, she initially said $200, then revised her answer to $1,200 after her daughter, who was traveling with her, mentioned that figure. The inconsistency led to a series of questions and increasingly intrusive searches that turned up more and more money, all of which the government confiscated. Carrying lots of money out of the country is perfectly legal, you see, but failing to report amounts of $10,000 or more is not, and any currency involved in such a violation is subject to forfeiture.
This incident, which occurred last April at Detroit Metropolitan Airport, came to light as a result of a complaint filed on Friday by Barbara McQuade, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan. To justify keeping Faren's money, McQuade cites 31 USC 5316, which requires people entering or leaving the country with $10,000 or more in cash to report that fact; 31 USC 5332, which makes it a felony, punishable by up to five years in prison, to evade the reporting requirement by concealing money on one's person or in one's luggage; and two other provisions, 31 USC 5317 and 31 USC 5332, that authorize civil forfeiture of such unreported or concealed money. McQuade does not allege that Faren's money came from an illegal source—only that it was used to violate the reporting requirement and the ban on hiding money to avoid the reporting requirement.
Judging from the narrative laid out in McQuade's complaint, according to which Faren repeatedly assured CBP officers that they had found all of the money before tearfully confessing to the full amount, she was afraid of exactly what happened: that the government would take every dollar it could find. The upside: According to The Detroit News, which reported the story on Friday, McQuade so far has not charged Faren with the concealment that is the basis of the forfeiture. Maybe the government will be satisfied to steal an old lady's savings and stop short of sending her to prison for the crime of keeping her business to herself.
[Thanks to Joseph N. for the tip.]