Perhaps nothing conjures up an image of wealth quite like American rapper Nicki Minaj in her US$400,000 pink Lamborghini, or American billionaire Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks NBA team, stepping out of his US$40 million private jet.
Yet in an age of constant connection, some of the world’s super-rich are reeling in their ostentatious behaviour in the name of safety.
“Privacy and safety are inextricably linked,” says Gary Howlin, senior vice-president at Gavin de Becker & Associates, which provides executive protection for wealthy people, including clients in the US Supreme Court and the Central Intelligence Agency, the American foreign intelligence service.
“There was a time when privacy concerns were primarily about financial loss, such as bank wire or credit-card fraud.
“Now, particularly with personal information readily available via internet and social-media sources, people are using what was once private information to learn where clients live – or information about their activities to seek personal encounters with them.”
As a result, the wealthy are proceeding with caution when it comes to grand displays of wealth.
The US socialite and entrepreneur Kim Kardashian West, known as the “Queen of Selfies”, had a reputation for flaunting her diamonds on Instagram and on the reality television series Keeping Up With the Kardashians.
However, after being held at gunpoint and robbed of more than US$10 million in jewellery in 2016, she has become more discreet about showing off her wealth – toning down her social-media photographs, no longer wearing lots of jewellery in public and employing 24-hour security guards.
Yet such a harrowing incident is not a prerequisite for being discreet.
CEOs and business moguls, such as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, have always been somewhat private, at least to the general public, yet even celebrities such as actresses Jennifer Lawrence and Melissa McCarthy have stopped putting their wealth on display.
The wealthy are living under the radar at home
“There was a time when people really flaunted their wealth – now they do not,” David Forbes, head of the private office at the property agent Savills, said.
“People’s priorities over the years have shifted. Now right at the top of the list, it’s security.”
Singer and actress Rihanna is one of many celebrities who are frequently seen in public flanked by their own private teams of security guards.
Forbes said that while wealthy people still buy expensive boats and planes, they do not want to attract the kind of attention open displays of wealth bring; they are now increasingly opting for “under the radar” living.
Such behaviour involves blocking GPS satellite tracking from locating property with a jamming signal, removing homes from the grid, and hiring architects to conceal buildings – whether by designing an underground home, or by using a “stealth concealment design” for above-ground properties.
These privacy tactics are not cheap – one underground mansion was listed for US$185 million in 2017.
Those wealthy without underground homes are paying up to US$500,000 to install luxe panic rooms, which are becoming more popular than ever among the rich as gun violence increases.
They are also living in affluent neighbourhoods that prevent Google's street photography vehicles from entering – meaning their residences do not show up online on Google Street View.
Reports suggest that British singer-songwriter Paul McCartney's mansion is not visible on Street View, and that neither are the homes of residents living in the celebrity-studded Hidden Hills, California, which include Kardashian West and her rapper husband Kanye West, singer Lisa Marie Presley, rapper Drake and singer Miley Cyrus, who has just married Australian actor Liam Hemsworth.
Try to drop a pin when searching Google for the privately owned US seaside resort of Sea Island, in Georgia, where numerous PGA Tour golfers live and where the average home costs US$3.2 million, and you will find no results on Street View either.
Forbes said that shell companies and ownership structures, as well as gated communities, have ensured anonymity for property buyers.
Wealthy homeowners are also spending more on home security systems, he said.
Gavin de Becker & Associates provides a very high level of protection for luxury residential estates, including a dedicated security office, elaborate technological early-warning systems and strict access control to keep people out, Howlin said.
“It is common for a successful, well-known executive to spend a million dollars a year – or much more – for a comprehensive security and privacy programme,” Howlin said.
Facebook approved a US$10 million annual security allowance for Zuckerberg and his family in 2018 – an increase of nearly US$3 million compared with 2017.
The wealthy seek out privacy and security when they travel
Yet such security is not limited to the home – the super-rich are also taking steps to travel more discreetly.
“If you’re driving a convertible Bentley right now in the South of France, you are asking for trouble – you will be followed back to your villa by a couple of scooters,” Forbes said.
Perhaps that is partly why so many billionaires avoid driving luxury cars.
Zuckerberg has been seen in an Acura TSX, a Volkswagen hatchback, and a Honda Fit, each valued at or less than US$30,000. The Walmart heiress Alice Walton, the world’s richest woman, drives a 2006 Ford F-150 King Ranch, which costs about US$40,000.
However, that is only on the road – travelling across the country or internationally brings other challenges.
For this, Gavin de Becker & Associates relies heavily on logistical planning and execution – clients want hotel rooms pre-checked under an alias and privately accessible.
“Our clients will never be found standing at the lobby desk to check in, and even walking through the public spaces is optional,” Howlin said.
The company also owns and operates the Private Suite at Los Angeles International Airport, which rich people pay more than US$4,500 to use for solitude each time they travel, which includes luxurious amenities, privacy and security, such as being dropped off by limousine on the runway, bodyguard protection, and “private” security queues.
Yet that is when they are flying commercially.
Any jet – even a private one – that is registered has a tail number and can be traced, XOJET, an on-demand private-jet operator, said.
As a result, billionaire moguls, CEOs and celebrities are starting to use on-demand charter jets for greater privacy.
“If you’re a celebrity and you do not want the public knowing your every move, flying charter [aircraft] … allows anonymity as the jets are randomly assigned based on the [trip]," James Henderson, president of commercial operations at XOJET, said. “Meaning you may never get the same jet twice – allowing for complete privacy.”
Actor Jamie Foxx, US singer Fergie and Kardashian West are all believed to have flown using on-demand private jets via JetSmarter.
Chartering a private jet does not come cheap, though; a trip from New York to Los Angeles via XOJET costs US$25,000 one way. But for many wealthy people, privacy is priceless.
This story originally appeared on Business Insider