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Anonymous company owners

Anonymous shell companies are getaway cars for the world’s criminal and corrupt. We have been campaigning to take away the keys, by pushing governments to change laws and bring the people who own and control companies - the so-called ‘beneficial’ owners - out into the open.

The  financial system makes it simple to hide and move suspect funds around the world. You can quickly and easily set up layer upon layer of paper companies and trusts, crossing borders and jurisdictions and making it almost impossible for law enforcement to track down the real human being behind the money. Trusts present their own unique money laundering risks - providing an unparalleled degree of secrecy, which means the extent of their use is critically under-reported.

In 2014, our co-founder Charmian Gooch was awarded the TED prize in support of her campaign to end the use of these anonymous companies and therefore tackle the root causes of corruption, poverty and lots of other problems.  Her wish for a new era of transparency through public registers of the real owners of companies won support from law enforcement and business leaders worldwide.

Since then, campaigning alongside other CSOs, journalists and parliamentarians, we have achieved real change in our fight to ensure law enforcement, businesses, NGOs and ordinary citizens know who they’re dealing with.

In 2016, the UK became the world’s first country to introduce a public register of the real owners of UK companies. We analysed the data in 2018 and again in 2019 to demonstrate the power of public scrutiny and argue for better enforcement.

However, the UK continued to be linked to anonymous companies used to launder money via its Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies. After further campaigning, in 2019 we saw the UK’s Crown Dependencies commit to company transparency, whilst the UK Parliament has moved to require the same in the Overseas Territories. All of the Overseas Territories with significant financial centre, with the notable exception of the British Virgin Islands, have committed to introduce public registers.

In late 2019, the UK Government committed in the Queen’s Speech to introduce a register of the real owners of UK properties - following numerous investigations showing how the criminal and corrupt had used anonymous companies to conceal their ownership while they launder and stash dirty cash in UK property. But as ever, these promises must be turned into reality. The longer the delay, the more time those with something to hide can find new hiding places.

In the European Union, the 5th Anti-Money Laundering Directive, published in 2018, required that all Member States set up a centralised register of the beneficial owners of companies and make this information available to the public. We analysed progress two years in and found there’s still more work to do on implementation to make this legislation as effective as possible.

Finally, the US reached its own anti-money laundering milestone in 2019, with the Corporate Transparency Act passing through the House of Representatives. A decade in the making, this is the first time legislation to effectively end anonymous companies has made its way out of a chamber of Congress. Now the campaign continues to ensure the passage of the Bill through the Senate.

Chancing it

From violating sanctions to profiting at shareholders' expense, the hidden dangers that anonymously-owned companies pose for investors and businesses
Sao Paulo stock exchange

The TED Prize

Watch: Global Witness founder reveals how tax evaders, drug cartels and arms traders use anonymous companies to hide criminal activity and keep millions of people in poverty.
charmian TED


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