Blog | Oct. 8, 2014

56 reasons why anonymous company ownership is the biggest problem you’ve never heard of

Anonymous company ownership doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue does it?  Nor is it a phrase that many people have heard of.  But it should be.  Anonymous company ownership is behind much of what is bad in the world.

It’s behind the fraudsters who cheat vulnerable people like the young, the old and the sick out of the resources they need to get by in life.  It’s behind the tax dodgers who don’t pay their fair share towards society.  It’s behind the dishonest public officials who use their positions for personal gain, and the corrupt multinationals that bribe their way into a lucrative contract.  It’s behind the people traffickers who condemn people to lives of modern-day slavery.  It’s even behind the terrorists, drug cartels and mobsters who run criminal enterprises.

Check out our new film, Mexico’s Drug Wars: Three Brothers, One Dirty Secret for an example of that. This is not an isolated case.

All these criminals need to move their dirty profits.  They can’t move the money in their own name, so they open a company – a company in which their control and ownership is hidden – and get the company to move the money instead.

We at Global Witness have been campaigning to end anonymous company ownership for a number of years now.  In March this year, our co-founder Charmian Gooch was awarded the $1million TED prize for this campaign.

We’ve had some successes, particularly the fact that the UK has committed to ending this practice – the first country in the world to do so.  But the problem won’t be fixed until all countries do the same. And that’s why we’ve created a map to highlight the extent of the problem.  It’s online, and interactive – have a play with it here

BVI Ripoff

The map shows real life examples of anonymous companies and the harm they’ve caused.  It demonstrates the global scale of the problem.  The bigger the blue circle, the more stories about anonymous companies in that place.  The huge circle in the Caribbean?  That’s the British Virgin Islands.  All those circles over North America?  The problem of anonymous company ownership isn’t limited to the palm-fringed islands famed for being tax havens; we know that the United States is the biggest creator of anonymous companies used by the corrupt.  That probably means that American companies are popular with other criminals too.

Click on a blue circle to see how anonymous companies from that place have wreaked their havoc.  And then read about those cases – each a story of vulnerable people being ripped off, poor countries and taxpayers being ripped off, democracy and businesses and investors being ripped off.

So far, we’ve amassed 56 stories of anonymous company ownership and the problems it causes.  But it’s a work in progress. There are heaps more stories out there, and we’re continually adding them. What you can do:

  • Get in touch via [email protected] if you have any suggestions for how to improve the map.
  • Send new stories you’d like to contribute to [email protected]  Provide as much evidence as you can as to the wrong that the company has facilitated, and the means by which its ownership is hidden.  We cannot guarantee that all stories sent to us will be featured on the map, but we will endeavour to respond to everyone.!/contribute
  • Feel free to embed the map in your own website.
  • Feel free to re-use any of our case studies – we’ve made them all available to download and have licensed themsuch that you’re free to use or adapt them yourself as long as you acknowledge where you got them from, indicate whether you’ve made any changes and let others also do the same.
  • Find out about the harmed caused by companies in the place you live.  And let your local government and business leaders know you’re through with business being done in darkness.


  • Rosie Sharpe

    Senior Campaigner, Digital Threats