How Britain can help you get away with stealing millions: a five-step guide

Step 1: Forget what you think you know

If you want to commit significant financial crime, therefore, you need a bank account, because electronic cash weighs nothing, no matter how much of it there is. But that causes a new problem: the bank account will have your name on it, which will alert the authorities to your identity if they come looking.

This is where shell companies come in. Without a company, you have to act in person, which means your involvement is obvious and overt: the bank account is in your name. But using a company to own that bank account is like robbing a house with gloves on – it leaves no fingerprints, as long as the company’s ownership information is hidden from the authorities. This is why all sensible crooks do it.

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Here is the secret you need to know to get started in the shell company game: the British company registration system contains a giant loophole – the kind of loophole you can drive a billion euros through without touching the sides.

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. The true image associated with “shell companies” these days should not be an exotic island redolent of the sound of the sea and the smell of rum cocktails, but a damp-stained office block in an unfashionable London suburb, or a nondescript street in a northern city. If you want to set up in the money-laundering business, you don’t need to move to the Caribbean: you’d be far better off doing it from the comfort of your own home.

Step 2: Set up a company

The second step is easy, and involves creating a company on the Companies House website. Companies House maintains the UK’s registry of corporate structures and publishes information on shareholders, directors, accounts, partners and so on, so anyone can check up on their bona fides.

Setting up a company costs £12 and takes less than 24 hours. According to the World Bank’s annual Doing Business report, the UK is one of the easiest places anywhere to create a company, so you’ll find the process pretty straightforward.

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While it has bullied the tax havens into checking up on their customers, Britain itself doesn’t bother with all those tiresome and expensive “due diligence” formalities. It is true that, while registering your company on the Companies House website, you will find that it asks for information such as your name and address.

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Step 3: Make stuff up

This third step may be the hardest to really take in, because it seems too simple. Since 2016, the UK government has made it compulsory for anyone setting up a company to name the individual who actually owns it: “the person with significant control”, or PSC.

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Here is the secret: no one checks the accuracy of the information you provide when you register with Companies House. You can say pretty much anything and Companies House will accept it.

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Suspicious typos are everywhere once you start delving into the Companies House database.

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Recently, while messing about on the Companies House website, I came across a PSC named Mr Xxx Stalin, who is apparently a Frenchman resident in east London.

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Xxx Stalin led me to a PSC of a different company, who was named Mr Kwan Xxx, a Kazakh citizen, resident in Germany; then to Xxx Raven; to Miss Tracy Dean Xxx; to Jet Xxx; and finally to (their distant cousin?) Mr Xxxx Xxx. These rabbitholes are curiously engrossing, and before long I’d found Mr Mmmmmmm Yyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy, and Mr Mmmmmm Xxxxxxxxxxx (correspondence address: Mmmmmmm, Mmmmmm, Mmm, MMM), at which point I decided to stop.

As trolling goes, it is quite funny, but the implications are also very serious, if you think about what companies are supposed to be for. Limited companies and partnerships have their liability for debts limited, which means that if they go bust, their investors are not personally bankrupted. It’s a form of insurance – society as a whole is accepting responsibility for entrepreneurs’ debts, because we want to encourage entrepreneurial behaviour. In return, entrepreneurs agree to publish details about their companies so we can all check what they are up to, and to make sure they’re not abusing our trust.

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The anti-corruption campaign group Global Witness looked into PSCs last year, and found 4,000 of them were under the age of two. One hadn’t even been born yet. At the opposite end of the spectrum, its researchers found five individuals who each controlled more than 6,000 companies. There are more than 4m companies at Companies House, which is a very large haystack to hide needles in.

You don’t actually even need to list a person as your company’s PSC. It’s permissible to say that your company doesn’t know who owns it (no, you’re not misunderstanding; that just doesn’t make sense), or simply to tie the system up in knots by listing multiple companies in multiple jurisdictions that no investigator without the time and resources of the FBI could ever properly check.

This is why step three is such an important one in the five-step pathway to creating a British shell company. If you can invent enough information when filing company accounts, then the calculation that underpins the whole idea of a company goes out of the window: you gain the protection from legal action, without giving up anything in return. It’s brilliant.

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Step 4: Lie – but do so cleverly

Most of the daft examples earlier (Mmmmmmm, Mmmmmm, Mmm, MMM) would not be useful for committing fraud, since anyone looking at them can tell they’re not serious. Cumberland Capital Ltd, however, was a different matter. It looked completely legitimate.

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When US police came looking for the people behind Cumberland Capital Ltd, they searched the Companies House website and found that its director was an Australian citizen called Manford Martin Mponda. Anyone researching binary-options fraud might quickly conclude that Mponda was a kingpin. He was a serial company director, with some 80 directorships in UK-registered companies to his name, and features in dozens of complaints.

It already looked like a major scandal that British regulation was so lax that Mponda could have been allowed to conduct a global fraud epidemic behind the screen of UK-registered companies, but the reality was even more remarkable: Mponda had nothing to do with it. He was a victim, too.

Police officers suspect that, after Mponda submitted his details to join a binary-options website, his identity was stolen so it could be used to register him as a director of dozens of UK companies. The scheme was only exposed after complaints to consumer protection bodies were passed onto the City of London police, who then asked their Australian colleagues to investigate.

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So here is step four: don’t just lie, lie cleverly. British companies look legitimate, so look legitimate yourself. Steal a real person’s name, and put that on the company documents. Don’t put your own address on the documents, rent a serviced office to take your post: Paul Manafort used one in Finchley, the binary options fraudsters went to Liverpool, and Lantana Trade was based in the London suburb of Harrow.

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Step 5: Don’t worry about it

I know what you’re thinking: it cannot be this easy. Surely you’ll be arrested, tried and jailed if you try to follow this five-step process. But if you look at what British officials do, rather than at what they say, you’ll begin to feel a lot more secure. The Business Department has repeatedly been warned that the UK is facilitating this kind of financial crime for the best part of a decade, and is yet to take any substantive action to stop it. (Though, to be fair, it did recently launch a “consultation”.)

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In 2011, then-business secretary and Liberal Democrat MP Vince Cable decided to open up Companies House, and everything changed. After Cable’s reform, anyone with an internet connection, anywhere in the world, could create a UK company in about as much time as it takes to order a couple of pizzas, and for approximately the same amount of money. The checks were gone; there was no longer any connection to a verifiably existing person; it was as easy to create a UK company as it was to set up a Twitter account. The rationale was that this would unleash the latent entrepreneurship within the British nation by making it easy to turn business ideas into thriving concerns.

Instead of unchaining a new generation of British businesspeople, however, Cable let slip the dogs of fraud. At first, this rather technical modification to an obscure corner of the British machinery of state did not garner much attention, but for people who understood what it meant it was alarming.

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There is, it turns out, a simple explanation for why successive governments have failed to do anything about it. Last year, when challenged in the House of Commons, Treasury minister John Glen stated that Companies House simply couldn’t afford to check the information filed with it, since that would cost the UK economy hundreds of millions of pounds a year. This is almost certainly an exaggeration. Anti-corruption activists who have looked at the data say the cost would in fact be far less than that, but the key point is that the reform would pay for itself. As Brewer has pointed out, “the burden of cost is one thing. But the cost of fraud is far greater.”

VAT fraud alone costs the UK more than £1bn a year, while the National Crime Agency estimates the cost of all fraud to the UK economy to be £190bn. The cost to the rest of the world of the money laundering enabled by UK corporate entities is almost certainly far higher.

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lesson number five: don’t worry about it. Commit as much fraud as you like, fill your boots, the only reason anyone would care is if you kick up a fuss. And what sensible fraudster is going to do that?

Source: How Britain can help you get away with stealing millions: a five-step guide | World news | The Guardian