British Virgin Islands: Trouble in paradise
British Virgin Islands: Trouble in paradise File pic

How was it possible to steal reams of files from a paradise island that belong to the super-rich?

That will be the question on the lips of furious millionaires and billionaires who may well be screaming down their phones to their highly paid financial adivisors, wealth managers and bulge-bracket bankers, after one of the biggest data dumps in history revealed the sordid financial secrets of some of world's richest people.

Up to $20tn is suspected of being stashed away from the public eye in tax havens like the British Virgin Islands.

Drenched in sunshine and boasting idyllic scenery, the mega-rich no doubt expected their wealth was safe in such tax havens - far from the taxman back home.

But all that has changed, following a historic leak to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) of sensitive data about the huge private fortunes hidden away by public figures.

Somehow, somebody gathered up millions of files containing details of transactions which were never meant to be seen in public. Experts believe they had to have been transferred onto a hard disc from a centralised clearing house.

A total of 260 gigabytes of information was then crammed on to hard drive by the tax haven deep-throat and then sent by the most traditional of communication technology - the post, to Gerald Ryle, director of ICIJ, in Washington DC.

That way began the gruelling process of sifting through the equivalent of a half a million books of raw data. More than 40 media outlets in 46 countries worked for 15 months, joining the dots to build up a web of transactions and activity which has now been put into the public domain.

As a result, the ICIJ daylight has been thrown on the murky world of refined tax avoidance - and a vast cabal of the rich and powerful have been caught with their proverbial swimming trunks down.

Not too many questions were asked of mega wealthy depositors when they employed the opaque - and legal - services on offer in those far-away lands. But questions are now being asked, for certain.

It is hoped the exposure of the information could aid criminal investigations gone cold and shed light on claims made by public figures about the true nature of their financial affairs.

The list of names reads like a proverbial who's-who of the global elite and also includes the wife of the former Thai owner of Manchester City FC, Thasksin Shinawatra.

A politician in the former Soviet province of Mongolia has indicated he may quit public life over what has been revealed about his secret fortune.

Meanwhile, the litany of big fish swept up by ICIJ's diligent work includes members of the great America families. James R Mellon, of the Mellon oil and banking dynasty, appears in the new files

He has previously admitted using offshore companies for tax reasons, insisting: "I have never broken the law."

A steady stream of releases in to the public domain is promised and it threatens to make uncomfortable reading for the global, monied elites who would rather nobody knew about their hordes of cash.

Attention to sure to turn on to finding the source of the leak. Was it a disgruntled employee of one of the funds with a vendetta? Was it a public interest warrior believing they were on a mission to cleanse the murky world of offshore tax avoidance?

Or maybe it was a computer hacker with the skills to unlock one of the web's most heavily guarded portals.

Fury and a quest for answers is likely to be the main reaction among those whose affairs have been dragged in to sunlight. One thing is certain, that today the champagne fizz has gone flat for some of planet Earth's richest citizens - for now at least.