Almost everyone can benefit by having a second citizenship and passport. The biggest advantage is that it gives you a way to travel internationally if you lose your primary passport or if your government seizes it. There is also a unique benefit for US citizens: only with a second passport can you legally divorce Uncle Sam through the process of expatriation – giving up your US citizenship and passport – and avoid having to pay taxes on your worldwide income.

There's a certain mystery around this subject, but it's perfectly legal for citizens of most countries, including the US, to acquire a second citizenship and passport. And that has led to constantly increasing demand.

In response, a growing number of countries have introduced citizenship-by-investment programs. These programs provide an expedited procedure for applicants who pass a strict background check to make a contribution or investment in a country, in exchange for a fast-tracked path to citizenship. Instead of waiting years to qualify for a second passport through ordinary naturalization, you can have one in a matter of months.

It's no wonder programs like these have become so successful. At the same time, though, second citizenship schemes of less-certain legality are also popping up. One that got shut down recently was in Paraguay. The promoter was actually printing fake documents on a printing press in her basement!

This background came to mind last week, when I read the details of the latest citizenship-by-investment scheme. The program offers citizenship from an unnamed Central American country in eight to 12 weeks, including a biometric passport, national ID card, and driver's license. And you can get everything issued in another name!

Now, the offer could be legit… but it did raise quite a few red flags.

To begin with, the promoter never mentions the country offering the passport. And the offer never mentions what law authorizes issuance of citizenship and a passport in just a few weeks' time… only that the passport comes from a "government source." That's hardly reassuring.

The price is right, though: only US$48,000 for a single applicant, with an extra $26,000 for your spouse. You can add children up to age 18 onto the application for additional fees.

This is less than half as much as the least expensive citizenship-by-investment program (Dominica) that's clearly authorized in law. But if the offer is so good, why is it priced so much lower than unquestionably legitimate programs?

Oh, and by the way… the promoter holds all your funds, too. That makes me nervous… especially since escrow services aren't expensive and the escrow fee could easily be added to the cost of the offer.

The obvious question is: With all the secrecy, does this offer rely on corrupt officials in the country offering it? Maybe… but it's also possible that there is some kind of official sanction for the program, known only to a small cabal and not part of any public record.

All in all, though, I wouldn't touch this offer with a ten-foot pole. It could be perfectly legit, but it just doesn't pass my 'smell' test.

If you're in the market for a second citizenship and passport, the best way to get one is to move to the country you want to become a citizen of and live there long enough to qualify for ordinary naturalization. Unfortunately, this can take three or more – often a lot more – years.

If you need a passport more quickly and you don't qualify for one due to ancestry or marriage, you'll need to look into a citizenship-by-investment program. But before you jump in head first, beware of these red flags:

  • No proof of legal basis. Not having the country or the legal authority for the program identified was the biggest red flag for me with the offer I just described. It begs the question: what are you trying to hide?
  • Too cheap. It's a safe bet that any offering that's much less expensive than the least expensive legal citizenship-by-investment program, in Dominica, is likely not legitimate. Another red flag.
  • Too easy or too fast. No country will give an applicant citizenship and a passport without a detailed application process, including completion of official application forms and a comprehensive background check. This program didn't offer an overly fast turnaround – eight to 12 weeks is doable if everyone does their job.
  • Issued in another name. In this age of full disclosure, no country is going to issue you a passport in a fake name. You may be permitted to change your name and have the new name published on your passport, but your old name will be noted as well. If all you need to do is pay some cash to get your name changed, you're probably dealing with a passport scam. With this program, though, a name change is definitely possible… and that's another red flag.

This program triggers three out of four of these red flags. Given the relatively low price, some of you might be thinking, "Maybe I should pursue this, just to see where it goes. Assuming it's not a complete scam, at least I'll get a second passport for a lot less money than I can in any other citizenship by investment program. In that event, what do I have to lose?"

A lot. If your agent is securing a passport through bribery or misrepresentation, your passport could be revoked at any time and you could be subject to arrest and/or deportation. It's a safe bet that the passports issued by Paraguay through the auspices of the woman with a basement printing press have all been recalled or are in the process of being recalled.

If the buyers are lucky, they'll just lose their Paraguay passports plus the money they paid for them. If they're not lucky, they could wind up in prison.

How lucky do you feel?

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