What’s in a Company?
By Brad Murray, Laura Ranca, Jose Felix Farachala Valle
IN SHORT: Get started with basic know-how about researching companies by understanding essential concepts and practices used in the ‘corporate world’, accessing useful resources to help you map business ownership and connections, and looking at how others investigate obscure business activities around the world.
Have you ever wondered how you can find out more about a shady company that donated to a particular political campaign? Is a factory near your town polluting the air or water and you want to hold someone responsible but don’t know who is behind? Or maybe you are investigating a particular person and want to understand how they made their money, or whether the company they used to work for was engaged in any suspicious activity. Or you want to know if a government official has an uncle or a friend who’s been gaining public contracts through a network of businesses they operate. – We are all bothered by such questions all the time and one thing is clear: where there is money involved, there are interests; and while people are driven by interests, they will always use some business mechanism (clean or not) to satisfy those.
Here we will show you how to take a peek into the corporate world if you are at an early stage of researching this field, how to get started with analysing companies, understanding how they are registered and how they operate, finding out who controls businesses and how to trace real owners and beneficiaries, as well as how to map company connections and look for relevant information within and across borders.
Why would I investigate a company?
Well, you are rarely going to investigate a company in itself. Rather, you will more likely investigate an issue or a series of actions related to that company. You would not say, “I’m simply going to investigate Amazon.com Inc.” but (hypothetically), “I’m going to investigate Amazon’s investments in my city or its lobbying around regulation of online product sales in my country,” for example. Same goes with your local water or internet supplier. You will investigate something about them that sparked your interest or caused a problem: a hunch, an incident, their connections to issues relevant to you and your community.
There are two main types of company related investigations you may want to undertake. These depend on your starting point and what you set out to uncover, but they can often end up going together as nothing is straightforward …it would be too easy!
Linking a company to specific actions. – Your local river is increasingly polluted and you want to find out which of the several industrial companies in the region is responsible, so you need to collect evidence of possible connections to show who should be held accountable. Or, you suspect that local company (A) avoids paying tax in your country by channelling profits elsewhere abroad, so you need to follow its money trail to find out if and how this is happening.
Linking a company to specific interests. – You want to show who and what interests are behind company (B) gradually buying all decaying historical buildings in your town, so you will have to collect evidence connecting the company’s actions with the people and interests behind, looking at who benefits and how, possibly on the long term. Or, you want to know if a member of parliament benefits from business earnings, influence or other gains that they are not legally meant to have while in power, so you will need to trace the ownership, real beneficiaries and hidden connections of a company (or more) you suspect is obscurely linked to them to verify your assumption.
Spot the interests behind…
An intriguing recent case - crucial for the NGO world - is that of the on-going (since late 2019 and as of March 2020) attempts to sell the US-based non-profit The Public Interest Registry/PIR (that has been managing the ‘.ORG’ web domain since 2003) from the Internet Society to a new and obscure company set up by private equity firm Ethos Capital in 2019, just a few months before the purchase initiative.
The issue to start with is that .org has been mainly linked to the online presence and credibility of the planet’s non-profit organisations, including all the major ones like UNICEF, Amnesty, World Wildlife Fund etc. (including our own Tactical Tech), so it is mainly used by entities that have charitable status. The outrage of passing management of a domain used by non-profits to a profit making company with unclear procedures and responsibilities sparked controversy among many organisations and people, including representatives of the US Government. A summary of the entire process and its meaning is made clear by this Slate article.
The part that interests us (and everyone else) here is looking at what shows behind the buying company and why the newly registered buyer with non-transparent investors would want to pay 1.1 billion USD to acquire control over the .ORG registry.
There have been many questions raised and analysed by non-profit groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) as well as by politicians opposing the move as dangerous for civil society and freedom of expression worldwide. One useful set of points worth reading and learning from, when it comes to questioning corporate interests, emerges from letters that US Senator Elizabeth Warren and colleagues addressed to PIR and Ethos Capital in December 2019 and to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) more recently in March 2020.
Screenshot from Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)’s article: “NGO Community Urges ICANN to Scrutinize the .ORG Sale”. Taken on 9 March 2020. Source: https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2020/03/ngo-community-urges-icann-scrutinize-org-sale.
A positive update for the “save .ORG” campaigners – as of 30 April 2020, after months of advocacy efforts by the NGO community, continued media coverage and increased judicial scrutiny of the proposed deal, the transfer of the Public Interest Registry (PIR) (which manages the .ORG domains) from the Internet Society (ISOC) to Ethos Capital was stopped by ICANN’s Board. This might not be the end of the process however, so it’s a case worth following since the proposed value of the sale (1.1 billion USD) and its stake are so high, and the Internet Society is still insisting on the transaction arguing that it would save PIR from the high debt it has been accumulating while managing .ORG. You can read everything about Internet Society’s own take on the sale to Ethos Capital on KeyPointsAbout.org.
Company research is a good step (and skill set to have) when conducting investigations into any form of suspicious activity or obvious wrongdoing, from financial fraud, environmental pollution to censorship or human rights violations. As we said before, money and hidden interests go well together and companies are good vehicles to represent both. While it might sound intimidating at first, conducting company research, at least at a basic level, can be at anyone’s reach especially nowadays when this field has gained much attention as journalists, NGOs and the public are increasingly demanding that local businesses and international corporations are held accountable for their practices.
As with any research activity, to start your investigative journey you will first need to narrow your research down to the basics. If a company is involved in your case, that will be a good starting point and you will need to know everything about it that is available. Researching as much as possible about a company will yield information that may help answer many questions and provide clues and details for further investigation.
Before looking into any business-related activities, you need to know who and what you are dealing with. A company is not an abstract entity and there is nothing intangible about it. At its origin, a company is formed by people, run by people and operates under certain specific rules, regulations and jurisdictions. Of course, this doesn’t mean that all companies follow those rules and regulations or that all their operations are transparent and easy to follow. On the contrary, some are not ... and here is where the fun part of investigating starts!
Finding company information
Where would you begin digging for information on a company?
There are various ways of finding out who and what exactly you are dealing with when researching companies. It all depends on the company type, country/state of incorporation (registration), size, finances, activities, etc.
Publicly traded companies
Companies traded on public stock exchanges must usually post public financial details as well as often disclose major investors and creditors. If you know where a company you are researching may be listed, you can search for all the available databases in that jurisdiction. Note that while some offer free information others may have limited free access and require a service fee to disclosed full details. Here just a few examples of where you could end up searching:
In Europe, there are several major stock exchanges where financial information such as annual reports, lists of shareholders and share prices is available: the London Stock Exchange Group – includes London Stock Exchange and Borsa Italiana; EURONEXT, Nasdaq Nordic (for Nordic, Scandinavian and Baltic stock exchanges). For companies listed in Singapore, filings are searchable on the Singapore Exchange, for Hong Kong listed companies you can search on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. For companies traded in Mexico, you can search the Mexican Stock Market.
Companies traded on exchange markets in the United States must comply with regulations issued by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Owners of more than 5% of a company’s shares, including direct shares and options to purchase voting shares, must file a form with the SEC disclosing their ownership and their intention in making the investment. These forms are available via the SEC’s EDGAR search and can be retrieved by searching for either the company itself, or the investor.
There are also several paid and by far more comprehensive databases with global data but they are often too expensive for the average researcher like most of us. FactSet Equity Ownership and Bloomberg Terminal offer such services and depending on where you work and who you collaborate with, many large media outlets, research NGOs and business schools would have subscriptions to their databases – it is worth checking your options.
For state-owned enterprises, information on management as well as (sometimes) annual reports should also be available in public records. However, levels of transparency of this kind of information can vary greatly for other types of businesses, especially privately owned ones, depending on the country where they register and operate.
Before we get started, let’s take a step back and look at what a company is and what types of information are or should be available about it.
Remember that as you’re conducting your research, it’s important to stay organised and keep good records of the information you uncover. Otherwise, you may fall into the trap of having too much background information but no proper evidence, or following side tracks and forgetting where you started. Check out our evidence gathering and documentation tips in this Kit.
What is a company?
Companies are entities created under state or local laws to engage in business. Across the world, there are various types of companies. The process for creating these companies, as well as their legal complexity, varies greatly. It can be as simple as registering the trade name that a single individual uses to conduct business, or forming a complex structure of various entities across multiple countries and regulatory regimes.
Broadly speaking, there are forms of companies that have spread across most nations, and which share many similar features. For example:
Some forms of private limited companies exist in most jurisdictions. These companies are privately owned. The unique feature of private limited companies is that the “member” owners have limited responsibility for the debts incurred by the company. The company itself has the status of a “legal person”, it can conduct business, own property, file lawsuits and enter into contracts just like a person can. These companies are described as, for instance, Gesellschaft mit beschränkter Haftung (GmbH) in Germany and Austria, Sociedade Limitada (Ltda) in Brazil, limited liability companies (LLC) in the United States, and S.A. de C.V. in most of Latin America.
Most countries also have some form of stock corporation. Like limited companies, stock corporations are entitled to enter into legal agreements, file lawsuits and own property. Unlike private limited companies, stock corporations issue shares (”stock”), which entitle owners to portions of the corporation’s profits. These shares can be traded publicly, privately, or on stock exchanges. Stock corporations do not necessarily limit shareholders from the liability for debts incurred by the company, but many states have some form of limited stock companies. Stock corporations are often used for larger and more complex companies.
Additionally, most states have some form of registration requirement for foreign companies that operate within the country. Many also have some form of partnership, which is used for companies owned by two or more people and where the owners of the company are also the managers, and therefore assume the liabilities (legal responsibility) of the firm.
The law firm DLA Piper has produced a comparative document explaining which company types exist in which nations. Similar information can be found on this list of legal entities by country on Wikipedia.
Screenshot: excerpt from DLA Piper list of company types in different countries. Taken on 8 April 2020. Source: https://www.dlapiperintelligence.com/goingglobal/corporate/index.html?t=01-form-of-entity
Company formation documents
Since companies are legal entities granted the right to enter into contracts and take on debts, they must file notice of existence with the regulator (specifically with a company registration office) in their jurisdiction of incorporation. These formation or incorporation documents are filed at the beginning of the company’s existence. In most jurisdictions, there is also a requirement to file annual reports on their activities although this obligation can vary depending on the company type. These filings are always public documents that are available either online or via written or in-person request.
It’s important to note that the information disclosed in these documents varies. For instance, annual filings made by Irish companies with the Ireland Companies Registration Office often contain detailed financial statements, while annual filings in many other jurisdictions simply note that the company continues to exist. Many nations require that the formation documents list managers, incorporators or even beneficial owners. However, so-called corporate secrecy jurisdictions may not require any of that information, let alone disclose it publicly. This is the case in places like Seychelles, The Isle of Man, Vanuatu, or the State of Delaware in the US, among others.
Screenshot from Transparency International’s Anti-corruption Glossary. Taken on 7 April 2020. Source: https://www.transparency.org/glossary/term/secrecy_jurisdiction
Where can I find company formation documents?
If you know the country (or state or province, depending on administrative divisions) where the company was created, start by querying the official company register in the jurisdiction where the company was formed.
The Investigative Dashboard, a website managed by the investigative journalism network the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) indexed a database of worldwide registers, where you should be able to locate the relevant authority in your region of interest. Wikipedia also has an extensive list of company registries around the world.
Screenshot of Investigative Dashboard’s index page listing available public sources with data about companies around the world. Source: https://investigativedashboard.org/databases/
Not all company registers are entirely online – some are not online at all – and even if they are, the data on their websites may not contain important source documents, like annual reports and names of LLC members, shareholders, etc. You may have to call the registrar, make an in-person visit, ask someone you trust to help you if the information you need has to be obtained from a different city or country out of your reach, or even send a Freedom of Information (FOI) request where freedom of information laws are in place.
Useful resources about access to public information
Alaveteli is an open source project by MySociety that helps build online platforms where citizens can make Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to public authorities and businesses that carry out public functions (like public utility companies) of many countries – see the growing list of platforms it supports. While FOI requests don’t have an effect of making private companies disclose information, authorities may have to disclose useful details if they have contracts with such companies (unless they fall under legal exemptions such as national security interests or private details of individuals).
AccessInfo Europe is a non-governmental organization that defends and promotes the public’s right to information across Europe and beyond. Together with other organisations, it also develops the International Right To Information (RTI) rating that evaluates access to information laws and systems in over 120 countries around the world. AccessInfo also documented the challenges of obtaining data about company ownership across Europe in a 2016 report “It’s None of Your Business.”
The Freedom of Information Advocates Network (FOIAnet) is an international network of organisations and individuals working to promote the right of access to information, and it also hosts a collection of guides, tutorials, databases and other useful resources on the topic.
It is important to get to know your context and the relevant sources of data you might (or might not) find. For example, if the company is constituted in México, it is possible to check online or ask for the incorporation documents to see who constitutes the company and who the shareholders are. You have the same option in New Zealand, the UK, Netherlands, Romania and many other countries.
More and more governments are publishing corporate records online which can be obtained for free or for a fee, and you can often find quite a lot of information this way. However, in many places the corporate registries will only release limited – or no – information about shareholders, but will include data on directors, administrators, secretaries and so on. That is also a lead to start from and to look for more connections. Better than nothing!
While some (or all, in some cases) information about companies can be obtained for free from official registries, you might also need to pay a fee in many cases, especially if you require historical data about past owners, historical tax reports, etc. In some countries journalists and other professionals such as lawyers can obtain this data for free so you might be able to get around the need to pay by building connections with them and asking a trusted person for help.
What if I don’t even know where the company is registered?
There are a number of sources that enable you to search corporate filings across multiple jurisdictions, and with a thorough search on more platforms and databases, you might find enough bits of information to start filling the gaps. Here are several free platforms you can easily access, as well as some paid ones often used by investigators (you might get access to a library, university or organization that allows you to use them):
OpenCorporates provides free access to over 180 million company records from 127 jurisdictions, which it scrapes, purchases and indexes to allow searches by company or person (”officer”) name. It also provides more advanced paid-for services but the free options will be more than enough to get you started. It is used by journalists, activists and researchers around the world to track important data such as company ownership, connections, changes in time.
Screenshot from OpenCorporates company registers search page. Taken on 8 April. Source: https://opencorporates.com/registers
The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project’s Aleph tool offers free access to its large searchable database of over 200 million records and research materials, including datasets, official corporate registration files, leaks and other resources indexed from 233 countries and territories. OCCRP’s Investigative Dashboard features an index of worldwide company registries, court registries, land cadasters and other official resources available for free or for a fee.
Screenshot from OCCRP’s Aleph Tool. Taken on 8 April. Source: https://aleph.occrp.org/
The International Consortium for Investigative Journalism (ICIJ) runs the Offshore Leaks Database a massive free-to-use resource of company records and other useful documents that have been revealed by large leaks and projects the group has been working on, including the Paradise Papers, Panama Papers, Luxembourg Leaks, Bahamas Leaks, and other more recent investigations. The database is also available for download so that you can search everything you need on your own computer (but make sure your computer can handle the processing of large datasets, otherwise it may turn annoyingly slow).
Screenshot from ICIJ’s Offshore Leaks database. Taken on 8 April. Source: https://offshoreleaks.icij.org/
Lexis Nexis, another paid database, also indexes information from company records, court records and media resources, among others.
Mint Global, Orbis and Lexis Nexis are paid resources that offer a limited free trial (which may as well be useful for you to try out), but large libraries and universities – especially those with business and legal departments – in many countries might often have subscriptions and can allow the public to access such information in their venue.
Obtaining information from offshore tax havens and secretive jurisdictions
Screenshot from ICIJ’s article explaining offshore jurisdictions and updates on their 2016 Panama Papers investigation. Taken on 8 April. Source:https://www.icij.org/investigations/panama-papers/what-is-a-tax-haven-offshore-finance-explained/
In 2016, the release of the Panama Papers investigation by ICIJ disclosed information about how powerful political and other public individuals such as prime ministers, presidents and royals maintained offshore bank accounts, companies and other assets well hidden from the eyes of the public in their countries. This is one high-profile example of how money flows in obscure waters, when lack of transparency provides incentives for criminal activities. But the actors exposed by the Panama Papers and the like are just the tip of the iceberg; the offshore companies industry is huge and it’s a fascinating sector to investigate.
Some jurisdictions (countries, territories) are more favourable to business and assets (yachts, art, real estate, etc.) registration than others – usually because they demand lower (or no) income tax as well as often providing more secrecy about who owns and benefits from the company’s activities. This means that companies registered there pay less or no tax for commercial activities and the company registration system provides a strong layer of privacy and other benefits to individuals wishing to open accounts and businesses in the country or territory. These places fall under what is called an offshore jurisdiction or “offshore tax haven”, and they may be used by people who might have something to hide.
Not all offshore tax havens keep a high level of secrecy about companies registered there, although this may sometimes be the case. Places like Panama, Cyprus, New Zealand or the Netherlands are considered offshore tax havens but provide a good level of disclosure about who owns companies – although, like many other jurisdictions, they also make it easy to obscure real owners by allowing proxy persons or intermediaries to file registration papers on behalf of true owners, and thus serve as front-men/ front-women.
The Financial Secrecy Index developed by the Tax Justice Network ranks jurisdictions according to their secrecy and the scale of their offshore financial activities, also providing regular updates and reports on this topic.
Screenshot from the Financial Secrecy Index 2020 / Tax Justice Network. Taken on 8 April. Source: https://fsi.taxjustice.no/index/top
Company registries in secretive jurisdictions keep data about beneficial owners and shareholders closely guarded, only providing basic information such as date and place of incorporation and formation agent or a registry firm. The latter are most often consultants or agencies that enable company registration, represent the real founders in front of local authorities and do the official paperwork. They can often do everything from submitting tax returns and annual reports to acting as the directors of their clients’ companies in order to hide the identities of their real owners. Other than that, most agents have no shares or major interests in the companies they help set up, even though they make a big business out of facilitating non-transparent processes whereby true owners are hard to trace, if at all.
When exposing offshore empires became possible
Long before the Panama Papers revealed the global scale of the offshore business, a massive offshore formation enterprise was uncovered by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) in 2010 with an investigative project called Offshore Crime Inc, for which reporters spent years connecting the dots and following money and company activities across borders. This was also the first major cross-border investigation emerging from Eastern Europe as a successful collaboration between journalists and other civil society groups in exposing large scale illicit money flows and offered unique insights into the mechanisms of setting up and managing offshore networks via so-called “formation agents”.
In one of the findings, OCCRP researchers traced over 2,500 offshore businesses formed by the New Zealand-based Taylor family, which had been operating business registry firms since the 1960s. A number of the companies they helped set up were used by Russian crime networks and the Mexico-based Sinaloa drug cartel as well as the Muslim militant group Hezbollah.
Screenshot from the Offshore Crime Inc. project of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting project (OCCRP). Taken on 8 April. Source: https://www.reportingproject.net/offshore/
An important part of OCCRP’s investigation was based on open and free public records, complemented by interviews with sources, background research and some undercover reporting. Following this reporting, the New Zealand government closed down the Taylors’ firms. However, they later re-emerged in other locations and continued doing business as usual. Journalists continued exploring these new ventures, too.
Never assume that a successful investigation of any scale will stop the initial process of wrongdoing. It is often an ongoing journey and requires persistence.
Offshore companies are indeed often used as a way to mask the identity of owners, launder money or evade taxes. But many aren’t; they are simply going about their activities, with no hidden purpose.
Finding companies connected to a person
Often, a portion of your investigation will require you to find and map the companies associated with a particular person. This can be difficult, as online corporate registries are not always searchable by a person’s name (in registries these are often called “officer “ or “member name”).
A good first step would be to search OpenCorporates.com, which has information on over 200 million officers in more than 120 jurisdictions. While their data is not comprehensive, it represents the largest set of openly-available director data in the world. Once you have a list of companies from OpenCorporates that are associated with your person(s) of interest, make a note of all the other officers and addresses linked to those companies, as well as the jurisdictions in which the companies are located.
Since OpenCorporates data is likely not as recent as the information held in the official state registries (they scrape or purchase data regularly but not daily so changes are never indexed in real time), check to see if the corporate registries in the states where the person’s other companies are formed allow you to search by officer name. If so, do a reverse search by officer in those jurisdictions. A reverse search is a search of data by a field other than what that data is usually catalogued by. For example, telephone directories are usually printed to allow look-up by name, but a reverse phone directory permits searches by phone number instead. When you want to understand which companies an individual might be connected to, you might need to look up company registers (usually catalogued by company name) by the names of officers or managers (many registers allow this, but not all).
OpenCorporates.com requires you to register before being able to search by address. Registration is free, but the reverse address search is difficult to find. After logging in, select the “officers radio button” and click “search” (the search bar can be blank). On the resulting page click “advanced options” and select “address.”
Screenshot from OpenCorporates address search option, requires creating free account and logging in, see above! Taken on 8 April. Source: https://opencorporates.com/
OpenCorporates also has access to official gazettes, which can contain information not yet filed with the registrar, such as changes of director names or reports on shareholders meetings and board decisions.
Additionally, search the names of your person(s) of interest and those of other directors of the company in the OCCRP Aleph tool and in ICIJ’s Offshore Leaks database. You will end up running several search cycles across multiple databases and official registries but this is what enables you to fill in the gaps of one database or another. This is what investigators do on a daily basis, and this is what strengthens your evidence of connections, ownership and ultimately helps you link and verify your data and assumptions from multiple sources. The idea here is to widen your circle of inquiry to those individuals and addresses directly connected to the purpose of your investigation.
Pay attention though - unless you hit a wall later in your investigation and want to return, don’t go too broad and overload yourself chasing down possible leads that take you away from the main purpose.
You should also reverse search the addresses of the offices listed in the company filings. There may be multiple addresses in the incorporation documents: the address of the “registered agent for service of process” (the address you would send a lawsuit order or subpoena to), “the principal place of business”, or simply a “mailing address”. First search the address in a search engine. Just because a company lists an address in their incorporation documents, that doesn’t mean they actually operate from that address, or that the address actually exists (fake addresses are sometimes registered by those who want to hide their operations). For example, a two-storey office building in Wilmington, Delaware is listed on the incorporation documents of more than 300,000 companies, including half of the companies in the Fortune 500. These companies are making use of a company called CT Corporation, which charges small sums to handle company creation and compliance. If you see an address housing hundreds or thousands of other companies, try searching the address in the OCCRP Aleph database and OpenCorporates to see if it’s already been investigated and linked to controversial matters.
Finding people’s companies in wealth declarations and personal financial disclosures:
If your subject is a politician or a public servant, you may want to search their wealth declarations or personal financial history. In many countries, states and provinces, elected officials, high-level ministers and political appointees, as well as candidates for elected office, are required to file financial disclosure statements. Also called wealth declarations or “statements of economic interest”, these documents outline the assets (usually including shares or membership interest in a company), incomes and debts of the filer and their spouse.
If the subject of your investigation is or has been a politician, minister or candidate for elected office, or is or was married to a politician, minister or candidate for elected office, be sure to check whether they were active in a jurisdiction that required a wealth declaration.
What if I run into a post office box address?
Often, companies and individuals choose to provide a post office box (PO Box) as their mailing contact point. While this can provide a decent layer of obfuscation for individuals, it is often possible for a researcher to discover the address of a corporate post office box. In the United States, the post office will disclose the name of a PO Box subscriber, provided that the PO Box is registered to a company. This information is easiest to get by calling the post office where the PO Box is located and asking for the “box agent.” You can try asking the box agent if the box is registered to a company, and asking for the name, if so. If that doesn’t work, and depending on the jurisdiction, you can try sending a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the Postmaster asking for the same information. This does not work as well for Private Mail Boxes (’PBMs’) such as the ones offered by UPS and Mail Boxes Etc., which are required to file this information with the Post Office, but are often less aware of Post Office regulations.
Tips and Tricks:
In the United States, ProPublica’s Nonprofit Explorer also allows you to search for individuals who serve on the board of U.S.-based non-profit organisations.
Paid, commercial sources can provide corporate information across multiple jurisdictions. These services, such as Bureau Van Dijk, LexisNexis, Westlaw, and Dun & Bradstreet can be prohibitively expensive for citizen investigators, but may be accessible for free through your local library or university. They also offer free trials for limited use.
Be sure to check for companies registered to spouses or other close relatives! You can easily miss an important finding if you don’t check out which companies are registered to the spouses of your person of interest (e.g. if you are looking for a Member of Parliament’s related businesses, try searching if their spouse, children or other close relatives own and whether there are any masked benefits the MP might enjoy from that).
Try searching for the phone numbers and fax numbers listed for your company of interest. Are they connected to any other companies?
Collecting background information about a company
Connecting a particular individual to a certain company is rarely, if ever, a notable finding in investigative research. The compelling story lies in the deeds of the company, their interactions with consumers, regulators, competitors, politicians, human rights or the environment. To investigate a company you must first understand, at a basic level, what that company does:
What is the logic of the industry they operate in?
Who are their competitors?
What do they make?
What inputs/resources does the company need to create its product, whether in the form of raw materials, worker skills or political approval?
Getting to that understanding can be difficult, especially if the company is part of a complex, secretive or just plain unfamiliar industry. Here are few steps and tips that can help:
Check the company’s website
It sounds basic but you’d be surprised how much this can reveal at times. Materials written by employees of a company about that very company are likely tinged with bias, but are also a good source to understand how a company sees itself. A company website is a good source to start with. For publicly traded companies, their regulatory filings may include additional information about how they see their company growing, as well as what risks they face.
Conduct a news search
News reports can provide valuable insight into a company’s activities. You can use a free service like Google News or a paid service like Lexis-Nexis (which may be available via a local university or library). Additionally, the Internet Archive should be an ever-present resource in your investigations as it offers full-text searches of millions of texts and television closed-captions. Also read our extensive guide on Retrieving and Archiving Online Content in this Kit.
Screenshot from Internet Archive. Taken on 8 April. Source: https://archive.org/
Look for analyst reports
Investment managers and bankers have the same problem you do – they need to understand how a company or industry functions without necessarily having a lot of prior knowledge. Analyst reports offer assessments of corporate risks, strengths and opportunities. Of course, they won’t be available for every small company out there but rather for the larger ones and those listed on the stock markets. One accessible index platform where you can search for such reports and related news is Yahoo Finance. Other such information aggregators (mostly paid) are Reuters, Nasdaq and Wall Street Journal Markets. Business Schools and university libraries often have access to these and many other databases. Do not hesitate to ask them for access whenever possible but beware of disclosing any sensitive information about your research.
Listen to what stakeholders and other market actors say
Employees, unions, competitors and former employees can all have valuable (if biased) perspectives on your company of interest. Establishing a conversation with them can be challenging. Some large employers have online forums for their employees (for example, BrownCafe is the unofficial forum for UPS employees), and jobs and employee review sites like Glassdoor can provide limited insights.
Rarely is there a source of corporate information more candid than the allegations and documents filed in connection with legal proceedings. Depending on the jurisdiction, court dockets and filing information may or may not be publicly available. In jurisdictions where that information can be retrieved, it is almost always worthwhile to conduct a lawsuit search on the company name or on the names of people of interest when trying to understand their activities. See more in the later section Where to check for beneficial owners.
In addition to the above, you may also look for and examine other possible sources such as consumer complaint reports, corporate social responsibility reports, environmental impact reports, or public procurement databases, among others.
Identifying beneficial owners
What is a beneficial owner?
In this context, a beneficial owner is the person who financially benefits from a company, regardless of whether or not they have legal title or ownership of that company. Note that the phrase ‘beneficial owner’ may have other definitions under various contexts and laws.
The reason why this matters a lot is that the beneficial owner is THE person or group of people you will want to identify while investigating matters related to companies. Knowing who benefits from a deal or connection is crucial in understanding the networks of decisions, influence, illicit activities and other factors you may be investigating.
How are beneficial owners obscured?
In many jurisdictions around the world, individuals are allowed to form corporations without disclosing the names of the managers of those firms, let alone their beneficial owners. These so-called secrecy jurisdictions have become the locations of choice for obscuring the owners of both lawful and nefarious enterprises. While many nefarious actors choose to incorporate companies in secrecy jurisdictions, not all companies registered in secrecy jurisdictions are engaged in unlawful activity. In addition to their secrecy, these jurisdictions often offer additional benefits to companies, such as favourable legal or tax environments.
Screenshot from Transparency International’s Anti-Corruption Glossary. Taken on 8 April 2020. Source: https://www.transparency.org/glossary/term/beneficial_ownership
Beneficial ownership can also be hidden by the use of nominee or “stand in” directors – individuals who serve as “puppet” managers or so called proxy persons. These situations, where ownership is hidden behind a real person who purports to be a director, can present frustrating challenges for an investigator.
The Proxy Platform
For a good reading into how nominee or proxy-person based companies operate locally and across borders, read the stories behind Proxy Platform – an investigation project by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). The Proxy Platform takes you through an in-depth dive into the post-2008 financial crisis (for those of you who remember it) plight of countries and citizens of Eastern Europe via a criminal system built on hundreds, maybe thousands of phantom companies and proxy persons.
“Billions of euros circulated in the region in an illegal, parallel system that enriched organized crime figures and corrupt politicians. They exist on paper only and appear to be run by scores of common people, who are, in fact, simply proxies. Many are unaware that their names appear in official documents as the human face of a company. Others are naive or don’t care. Crime lords and corrupt government bureaucrats use these paper companies run by proxies to launder illegal billions into usable wealth.” (excerpt from: https://www.reportingproject.net/proxy/en/the-proxy-platform)
Screenshot from OCCRP’s Proxy Platform investigation. Taken on 8 April 2020. Source: https://www.reportingproject.net/proxy/en/
From the shelf or in the shell?
There are firms that exist to help facilitate the creation of these nominee or stand-in director companies – they are called shelf companies that are often pre-registered by third parties and can be simply purchased in some places. Shelf companies, also called “paper companies” are companies that are registered and maintained in good order but that do not perform any business activities – they almost literally stay on the shelf. They are usually created by law or accounting firms and sold as ready-made “product” for someone who wishes to avoid going through the hurdles of a registration process. They are not illicit by nature but can be used for illicit purposes especially when trying to obscure a beneficial owner.
Note that there is a difference between shelf companies and shell companies. Shell companies are also generally inactive companies (no significant business activity, no staff, no physical presence/office etc.) formed and used for the sole purpose of holding and transferring assets whether that is money, real estate, yachts, art etc. They are literally a shell holding the precious stone inside. As you can assume, they tend to be used in illicit financial activities, hiding assets or simply keeping them away from public eyes. Just as the shelf companies, they are not illicit by nature. Coming across a shell company does not mean you have to automatically claim that something is wrong, just follow your suspicion and verify along.
Nevada has a reputation for being one of the most secretive states in the United States, which is the second most secretive nation in the world according to the Tax Justice Network’s 2020 national secrecy rankings. For years, certain Nevada firms have trafficked in so-called “shelf companies”– existing companies with years of fictitious operating history and stand-in directors. One such company was used as a front for an illegal payday loan company, which layered their operation behind a shelf company in Carson City, Nevada run by James Fontano and other partners. Fontano’s shelf game frustrated both attorneys and state investigators, until he finally disclosed that he was only posing as a director on behalf of the real payday loan company as a way to help clients conceal themselves from public view. He apparently did this for hundreds of companies.
Outside of commercial offerings of shelf companies, companies and individuals can always simply contract with someone willing to pose as the true director of an organisation.
For more readings about methods, challenges and use cases on tracing beneficial owners, consult resources like this guidance on Transparency and Beneficial Ownership from The Financial Action Task Force (FATF), Tax Justice Network’s paper on Beneficial Ownership Verification, OECD’s Beneficial Ownership Toolkit, or PODER’s whitepaper (in Spanish) on Real Beneficiaries in Mexico and its Notes for Exposing Real Beneficiaries in Mexico’s Extractive Industry (in Spanish).
Also check the Open Ownership Register, a free tool created by transparency campaigners, journalists and technologists, which aggregates beneficial owners information from registries around the world and also cross-checks data from other open databases and resources like OpenCorporates and Transparency International.
Where to check for beneficial owners
Some jurisdictions have laws that require the disclosure of beneficial owners. In the United Kingdom, beneficial owners (called “people with significant control”) are required to register with the UK corporate registrar Companies House, which is free to search and use and does not require registration. This requirement extends to UK parent companies of foreign subsidiaries.
In Mexico, for instance, companies are also obliged to register in the Registro Público de la Propiedad (Public Register of Property) which has a digital database. It is possible to use it (partially for free) by registering with an email address.
Even when beneficial ownership is not publicly accessible for all companies in a jurisdiction, it is sometimes possible to uncover the identities of beneficial owners in particular industries or circumstances. But it may take some work. Consider the following:
Did the company create a public record that either lists or hints at its true owner?
Occasionally, an interaction with another public agency can bring even the shadiest of companies out of the proverbial shadows. Owning assets, paying taxes, applying for building permits and entering regulated industries or activities often requires a real human to sign documents on a corporation’s behalf. While attorneys and designees (people assigned to represent or sign on behalf of a real beneficiary) can be appointed to carry out this function, their identities may help you get closer to the name of the real owner. Occasionally, the person(s) signing may even be the true beneficial owner(s).
Does the company own real estate?
In most jurisdictions, personal property is both taxed and recorded, and this information is publicly available or requestable. Pay special attention to the signatories on property documents, as well as the address that tax bills are mailed to. Finding real estate holdings can be tricky. Property ownership records are often digitized.
For example, when former Aramark Corporation CEO Joseph Neubauer purchased a $20.8 million Manhattan condominium, he decided to use a non-member limited liability corporation as the actual owner, and had an attorney sign the purchase documents. But a building permit application, filed to renovate the newly-purchased condo, listed Neubauer’s wife, Jeanette Lerman-Neubauer, as the unit’s owner.
Does the incorporation filing or any other document list an address, phone number or other scrap of new information?
Following those breadcrumbs is essential in uncovering beneficial owners. For example, when journalists and Puerto Rico debt forgiveness activists had a hard time locating the true owners of Decagon Holdings LLC – a dark corporate vehicle used to invest in Puerto Rican debt, they started looking for other documents that mentioned the company. With a US State of Delaware registration and no online presence, investigators had little to go on until they stumbled upon a Boston, USA address in a bankruptcy court filing. The address turned out to be the law firm of Ropes & Gray, and a partner at that firm had previously worked with a Massachusetts-based hedge fund called Baupost Group. A phone call to Baupost confirmed that Decagon Holdings LLC was their subsidiary.
Is the company engaged in an industry that requires beneficial ownership disclosure?
In the United States, for instance, liquor licensing authorities and casino gaming regulators often require the disclosure of the true owners and investors of a company.
In addition, members of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative have committed to identifying beneficial owners of companies with “oil, gas, or mining” licenses or contracts in their country by 2020.
Is the company, or any affiliate of the company, located in a corporate secrecy jurisdiction?
For companies incorporated in tax havens (offshores) and secrecy jurisdictions, be sure to check the ICIJ Offshore Leaks database, which includes leaked incorporation and beneficial ownership data from four separate caches of leaked incorporation documents.
Was the company party to any lawsuit?
While you may not know the true beneficial owner of a corporation, a former employee, creditor or even competitor may know, and may have disclosed this information in legal proceedings. So it is worth checking court records for cases where the company you are interested in might have been involved or mentioned.
If you’re able to locate a court proceeding against your company of interest, you may run into roadblocks getting the underlying documents, such as the complaint, exhibits and court transcripts. In many locations, these documents are not available online and must be retrieved either through visiting a court house or employing a “court runner” (someone who provides services of obtaining court documents) to do so on your behalf. In much of the world, access to legal proceedings is covered by privacy laws, and viewing underlying complaints in civil cases may not always be possible, but definitely worth a try.
Access to court files
In the United States, federal case dockets and filings are available in legal database PACER - Public Access to Court Electronic Records. While PACER requires an account and charges for searches and records (charges totaling less than $15/quarter are waived), the RECAP Project provides free access to many federal court filings through CourtListener.com.
In addition, the Aleph database of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) indexes information it collects about criminal proceedings worldwide.
Building a company profile
Building a company profile is a good way to organise the information you’ve gathered. As you’ve read in the previous section, you can find many details about a company by researching its official records, public presence and activities from a diverse set of publicly available resources, documents and media reports among others.
During your investigation, the array of information that you should strive to collect and index for a company will include as much as possible from the list below.
Legal name – Be careful, many companies use a brand name that differs from the legal name that you will find in official registries; also, they may have changed their names in the past.
Date and place of incorporation – This will let you know when they registered and what their legal jurisdiction is, as well as other helpful information such as whether they are obliged to file an annual report and where (i.e. to the company register, the fiscal authority etc.), what kind of information they must disclose in reports, how their respective market is regulated (or not regulated at all, i.e. leaving room for lack of transparency and corruption).
Registration number – This is the company’s ID, a unique number (or series of digits and letters) that you will need to know if you conduct searches in other company databases, court records etc.
Registered address – This is usually where they receive legal/official mail and appears on official registration paperwork. It is not necessarily their headquarters or venue of production and regular activity (although it may be in some cases), it can simply be a P.O.Box.
Business address – This is where the company is located, where it conducts activities with customers, receives mail from clients, partners, etc.
Company type – E.g. Limited Liability Company, Limited partnerships, Corporation, Stock markets, etc. This helps you figure out under what laws they fall under, how they are run, what rights and obligations the company and its shareholders and beneficiaries have.
Registered business activities – What the company does, their business model, activities, etc.
Parent company – This is who owns your company of interest, it can be another company.
Parent company’s registered and business addresses – This is always useful to understand the rule of law of their operations, what jurisdiction they operate in, etc.
Subsidiaries – What other companies your company of interest owns.
Beneficial owners – The people ultimately owning and profiting from the business activities and income.
Board of directors – The group of people who take decisions on behalf of shareholders, oversee the business, decide and approve policies, goals and strategies. They may not be directly involved in daily activities but they supervise those who are. Their duties can include hiring and firing senior executives, establishing dividend policies and executive compensation, etc..
Voting power – Who has voting decisions in the meetings of the board.
Voice power – Who has voice in the meetings of the board, who do they listen to (this can be formal or sometimes informal.)
Significant staff members – Directors and managers in charge of finance, human resources, investments, production, etc. They may sometimes become good sources and are worth observing if you are lacking essential information about a company’s operations or ownership.
Investments and business partnerships – I.e. whether they are involved in joint ventures, public–private associations projects, etc. (the website WhaleWisdom.com – free only for limited use - allows you to search for either investors or publicly-traded companies, and lets you sort by percent ownership. Note that a sizable portion of all public equities are owned by so-called “passive investors”, such as index funds, mutual funds, and exchange traded funds (”ETFs”), usually do not actively engage in corporate decisions and governance).
Clients – Who are the major users and/or beneficiaries of their activities, services and products; who buys what from them and based on what kinds of agreements (may be especially relevant if they have government clients or if you are looking for controversial connections and money flows).
Providers – Who do they buy from and what (services, commodities, supplies etc.), on what kinds of agreements (again, looking at what and who the providers are affiliated with if you are seeking connections to government, politicians, their companies or people).
Competitors – Who do they share the ‘market’ with, is there fierce competition, are they alone – how does this influence their activities.
Social responsibility or philanthropic activities – Many companies and/or wealthy businesspersons set up foundations and support philanthropic causes that their leadership or shareholders believe in or consider to be beneficial for their public image. It’s worth knowing how these activities function and how they connect to the company, especially since corporations often use foundations to channel profits they want to avoid paying tax on.
Annual reports – This includes everything you can collect: financial reports, activity reports, tax returns, corporate social responsibility reports, audit reports, market reports done by analysts, etc. They will all help you construct a broader picture of a company’s financial health, its assets and liabilities, its losses and gains, its evolution across time, it’s weak points, etc. You can find many such documents online in national registries or aggregated by the many databases and websites we mentioned here.
Corporate tree – A visual representation of the entire chain of parent and subsidiary companies, which will help you decipher the maze if there are too many connections or if they are too convoluted. In some cases you may find a ready-made tree if you use visualised databases or services that include this kind of mapping; other times you will have to do it yourself by drawing or using available visualisation software.
Profiling and mapping your initial players this way helps you find out:
what companies and people you already know about, and what information you already have,
what companies and people you need to find out more about,
what companies and people you know nothing about,
what new companies and people you did not know about that are emerging as interesting players you need to investigate further, etc..
Screenshot of the Visual Investigative Scenarios (VIS) platform: https://vis.occrp.org/ – a free data visualization tool developed and maintained by the Organised Crime and Corruption reporting Project (OCCRP) and designed to assist researchers, journalists, activists and others in mapping complex business networks. It is easy to learn and use, requires setting up an account with your email, and you can confidently use VIS to map your initial company and people connections as you develop your research.
Listing all the possible players you might need to find out about in order to pursue your investigation is the first step. A map of actors will be useful to understand influential players in different contexts, whether it is inside the company – like people who manage and control it, subsidiaries, etc, or outside the company – like knowing its area of activity, business connections, lobbying activity, etc.
Even if you are only interested in a specific piece of information – such as the shareholders of a company or the director of a local office you think is to blame for wrongdoing – there is a whole array of information that may prove helpful and relevant in ways you cannot imagine at the start. Problems rarely occur in isolation and people’s decisions within a company are often the result of influencing factors and chains of decision making.
Of course, once you’ve done this basic review, you will need to go further and investigate the actual issues you were initially determined to go after.
Whenever you think you are ready to publicly name a company as responsible for a action, or a person whose interests are behind a company’s controversial actions, make sure you have all the documented proof at hand. Do not jump to conclusions of public statements until you have checked your findings multiple times. Also think whether what you’ve discovered is of any use and meaning to other actors who might be investigating the issues more in-depth and with whom you can establish a good level of trust, such as journalists, NGOs, advocacy groups, etc. Collaboration is key and working alone when investigating companies and people connected to them is rarely a good idea. Dealing with companies and the interests of those behind them is difficult and you may encounter legal, reputational and other kinds of risks when you go public with a claim.
Formal and informal connections
Remember that companies are made of people and run by people, so one of the most important things during the investigation process is to focus your resources on identifying people who you may be interested in. Sometimes you will start your research with one person and then move up the chain to a company and/or multiple connections of companies and people. Other times, you will need to start from large companies and then try to go deeper into their inner workings through several (sometimes tens, other times hundreds) of sub-entities and even deeper to get to know the people who are influential in this micro-universe. If you end up doing this with several companies and networks of businesses you are interested in, you can find out if and how they may be related – formally or informally.
One good hypothetical example would be if you get to know where Mr. Green (high official in the tax office) studied, which university generation he was part of, and who his classmates were. This way you may find out that he’s not auditing some companies of someone called Mr. Blue who went to the same university, in the same generation or class. This is why mapping informal connections is as important as the official company filings you can get during an investigation.
Investigating companies as part of “megaprojects” – how others did it.
At times you might be intrigued by a specific corporate-funded project that is being exposed for its human right violations, such as wind power projects, the construction of dams and so on. This kind of corporate activity falls under the concept of megaprojects – developments that require a lot of resources, such as water, land and human labour, over a long period of time.
Due to their size, megaprojects have massive environmental and socio-political repercussions. Investigating them is a complex and often challenging task and should not be done alone. In most cases such work is undertaken by journalists, NGOs and entire communities of citizens and professionals.
For an example of what it takes to do such work, we suggest looking at the investigations conducted by the Latin American civic group PODER on two megaprojects in Mexico: a new airport in Mexico City and a wind power project in Oaxaca.
Screenshot of PODER website: https://www.projectpoder.org/es/
The concept of the megaproject helps describe the plundering of resources occurring around the world. It allows us to see how government decisions benefit private interests despite the harm to the public good.
From a methodological point of view, when you are investigating a megaproject, you will need to look not only at the company with the concession (e.g. mining or airport construction) but also at all the companies involved in the supply chain of the project. You will want to know the subsidiaries, the corporate parent, the investors and so on. In other words, you will want to know every aspect of the project and who is providing that aspect. This will give you a fuller picture of the businesses and people engaged in the project and will allow you to make connections between them. This is often called power mapping, which means understanding who is involved in the decision-making of a project across all of its different layers and dimensions.
Even if big companies often seem capable of buying and building anything, most of the time they are not. They need investors to finance their big projects, so you need to find out who is giving money to fund the project that you are investigating. Companies are obliged to reveal thorough information to their investors about the endeavours they are working on. However, this practice depends on legal requirements imposed by different jurisdictions and may differ from country to country. For instance, researchers from PODER found that Almaden Minerals Ltd. (listed as “AAU” on the NYSE American stock exchange-NYSE MKT, and as “AMM” on the Toronto Stock Exchange-TSX) was lying to their investors in their annual reports about a mining project in Puebla, México. So they organised a campaign to contact the investors in the project and inform them that the company was violating human rights in the community where the project was being developed.
When you are investigating a company that is part of a certain project (megaproject or not), it is important to remember that you are looking for the people interested in making that project happen. Companies are legal entities with certain rights, but these companies are run by people, and these people have names and interests. People with job titles such as executive directors, shareholders or members of the board of directors would be some, but not the only people you would need to look at. This is important to acknowledge in order to understand what the purpose of your research may be.
You made it here, where next?
If you’ve made it here and read it all, you’ve done so much more than many others. You probably figured out that we’ve barely scratched the surface of what it takes to start investigating companies and activities related to them. Know, however, that this is a considerable step because many of us never make it to this stage of knowing what a good starting point is, what free and accessible resources are out there, and what kinds of questions we should be asking to guide our process of information collection. The surface we’ve scratched here is thick and it takes a good dose of determination, curiosity and sometimes imagination (we like to call it ‘seeing sideways’) to even start mapping all the details you will be getting from the methods and resources we explained here. Make the extra effort to also check and read the additional guides and data resources we’ve listed at the end of this section, they will open up new avenues for research as well as reveal how others have started and advanced in this field.
Get started, ask yourself some questions you’ve always wanted to explore, test the tools and resources here and see where they take you. Send us feedback via this website and let us know where this basic introduction is taking you and what questions and knowledge you’d like us to explore together next. This particular topic is meant to be expanded here and improved based on your reactions and needs, since this area of company investigations is a never-ending process of learning, following trails and discovering new connections.
Published April 2020 / Last updated June 2021
Articles and Guides
Beneficial Ownership Toolkit from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), (archived copy from Wayback Machine available here).
Follow the Money: A Digital Guide to Tracking Corruption, by Paul Radu and published by the International Center for Journalists (archived copy from Wayback Machine available here). An updated version of one of the first ever guides written about how to track dirty money and illicit businesses across borders, explained by an investigative journalist with concrete cases and useful tips.
Investopedia Dictionary of financial and company terms. An extensive database of company and finance related terms, definitions and analyses.
Investigating Companies: A Do-It-Yourself Handbook (archived with Wayback Machine here). Written by Richard Whittell at CorporateWatch, 2014.
Reporter’s Guide to Investigating Organized Crime - comprising chapters by leading crime reporters who offer tips and advice about how to tackle complex topics such as: financial crime, narcotics, arms trade, environmental crime, forced disappearances, cybercrime, mafia states, human trafficking, and art and antiquities. From the Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN.)
Researching Corporations and Their Owners, a guide from the Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN) (archived article copy from Wayback Machine available here). A guide and list of further resources for conducting company research in various jurisdictions.
Security in-a-Box, from Tactical Tech. A digital safety toolkit covering basic risk assessment principles and solutions, including advice on how browse safely, how to store and transfer your data, how to use social media and mobile phones more safely. This is a useful introduction for anyone researching and investigating in the online environment.
Tools and Databases
InvestigativeDashboard, by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). A global index of public registries for companies, land registries and courts.
OCCRP Aleph Tool by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). A free database with millions of documents and datasets from public sources, leaks and investigations.
Offshore Leaks Database, by The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists / ICIJ (also see related FAQ list). A free-to-access database of offshore companies, foundations and trusts from the Panama Papers, the Offshore Leaks, the Bahamas Leaks and the Paradise Papers and other ICIJ investigations.
OpenCorporates. A large open database of companies in the world.
Open Ownership Register, a free tool created by transparency campaigners, journalists and technologists, which aggregates beneficial owners information from registries around the world and also cross-checks data from other open databases and resources like OpenCorporates and Transparency International.
The Corporate Crimes Hub. A website and project that aims to advance the investigation and prosecution of corporate crime by providing legal and investigatory resources to those fighting against corporate impunity. Content developed by the Corporate Crimes Project at Amnesty International in collaboration with NGO partners worldwide.
Analyst report - In this context, research document produced by financial analysts assessing the strength of specific companies, industries or financial markets, providing insights useful to investors, bankers and others when deciding on their investments, credit approvals etc.
Asset - Resources that an individual, association or company owns. Assets can take various shapes and forms such as money, real estate, equipment, patents, etc.
Beneficial owner - Person(s) who benefit(s) from the gains of a company’s activities and profits. Beneficial owners may not always appear in official company records, there are cases they seek to hide their identity for various reasons.
Company formation agent/agency - An independent firm or person (agent) who provides services of registering and incorporating companies on behalf of their owners/shareholders. The agent thus completes the formal tasks required by law to form a company. This is a perfectly legitimate service but sometimes real owners use formation agents to obscure their identity in the process of incorporation, especially in jurisdictions where writing the name of the formation agent is enough in official papers.
Company records - Documents detailing a company’s legal incorporation and registration process, including its act of constitution, statute, division of shares, etc.. These are usually available from company registers and/or financial institutions of the country/state where a company is registered and where it runs official business.
Company register - A government-run institution and database that records all the official documentation of a company from its incorporation and initial division of shares to changes in management and ownership and activities, etc. The details help by company registers may differ across countries. Not to be confused with commercial company registers that buy, reindex and sometimes sell official information, often to make it easier to search or offer additional services.
Corporation - is a name used for larger businesses while ‘company’ tends to be used for smaller ones. In a corporation, owners are called shareholders while in a company they tend to be called members (although these names are sometimes used interchangeably).
Designee - Person assigned to represent or sign documents on behalf of a real beneficiary that can be a person or a company. Designees can represent when filing tax papers, applying for building permits, etc.
Freedom of Information (FOI) request - The process of requesting access to information from public institutions or companies based on established procedures and forms. This process and access is governed by Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation. Not all countries have or apply FOI legislation. See AccessInfo’s Right To Information (RTI) ratings for details.
Foreign company - A company incorporated in one country that performs activities and investments in a different country; it can also be called a “foreign owned company”. This is specific to multinational companies that run activities across more jurisdictions.
Hedge fund - A type of investment fund that gathers money from high-net-worth people or institutional investors (banks, other companies, associations etc.) and invests in portfolios of assets, companies, services with the intention to bring large profits to its investors. See this Investopedia entry for more details.
Jurisdiction - A geographical area governed by a specific legal authority (i.e. local, regional, national government).
Legal name - The name companies record in their official registration documents and that can sometimes differ from their trade name (used in daily business). You can find the full legal name on official filings at company registers, and sometimes on the company website, on the stock exchange, in legal documents, etc..
Limited Liability Company - A type of company whose members are only liable for the company’s debts or other liabilities to the extent of the investment they make in the company or the shares they own. These companies exist in most jurisdictions but may have different labels: LLC in the United States, PLC in the UK, GmbH in Germany etc. (see this Investopedia entry for more details.)
Notice of existence - Document showing that a company exists and has been incorporated as of a particular date.
Official gazette - A periodical government publication that provides updates on public or legal notices, including new companies incorporated in the respective jurisdiction, decisions of court trials, newly approved regulation, etc.
Offshores - Also called tax havens or fiscal paradises, these are jurisdictions that offer attractive tax deductions and other financial benefits to foreign companies incorporating locally (see Transparency International’s Anti-corruption glossary for more.)
Parent company - A company that controls another company through the amount of stock (or shares of stock) it owns in it. The parent company (may also be called “holding company”) can have control over managerial activities, voting and decision-making, etc. depending on how much stock it owns.
Post Office Box - A lockable box placed at the premise of a postal office, which has its own unique address and can receive mail and packages for its owner. In this contexts, companies may provide a PO Box in their incorporation documents or on their website.
Private limited company - A type of registered small business entity privately owned by one or more (usually max. 50) members that can be people, associations or other companies, and where an owner’s liability/responsibility for the company’s failures is limited to the amount of company shares they own. For example, if the company is fined for environmental damage, a member owning 10% of the company’s shares will only cover 10% of the fine (this being distributed among all members). These companies cannot be traded publicly on stock markets and shares can be sold only to other members within the company.
Proxy person - A person whose name appears on official company records and who may publicly act as the owner or manager of a company but whose role is to hide the identity of the real company beneficiaries who may want to remain hidden from public documents for certain reasons. Sometimes a proxy might not know that their name appears in company records while other times, there is some form of written or verbal agreement between proxy persons and real beneficiaries.
Publicly-traded company - Also ‘publicly listed’ or ‘publicly held’ company, is a corporation whose shares of stock are available to be traded (sold and bought) on a stock market.
Secrecy jurisdiction - Jurisdictions (countries, states, regions, etc.) where the regulatory system provides legal and financial mechanisms for companies to hide information about beneficial owners, management, finances and other details. This is often used by companies in order to hide obscure, illicit activities and money flows. The term is sometimes used interchangeably with “tax havens” (see this entry from the Financial Secrecy Index for more details.)
Shell company - Companies that are pre-registered by third parties and can be simply purchased by those who would like to have a company but prefer to avoid the process of setting it up. Shelf companies, also called “paper companies” are companies that are registered and maintained in good order but that do not perform any business activities – they almost literally stay on the shelf. They are usually created by law or accounting firms. They are not illicit by nature but can be used for illicit purposes especially when trying to obscure a beneficial owner.
Shell company - Generally inactive companies, with no significant business activity, no staff, no physical presence/office etc., formed and used for the sole purpose of holding and transferring assets whether that is money, real estate, yachts, art, etc.. They tend to be used in illicit financial activities, hiding assets or simply keeping them away from public eyes. Just as the shelf companies, they are not illicit by nature.
Stock exchange - Markets where owners of company shares perform transactions with potential buyers. Not to be confused with the stock market, which is a more complex array of activities and includes stock exchanges (see this Investopedia entry for more details.)
Stock market - A collection of markets and exchanges where activities of buying, selling, negotiating exchanges of corporate shares/stocks take place (see this Investopedia entry for more details.)
Stock corporation - A registered for-profit company that can have from one to an unlimited number of owners (people, associations or other companies) but this depends on jurisdiction. Shares in corporations are called ‘shares of stock’, owners of the shares are also called ‘stockholders’ and they usually receive a share of the corporation’s profits (dividends) based on the amount of shares they own. Shares can be sold inside and outside the corporation, and may be traded on stock markets (again, depending on regulation and profile of the company).
Subsidiary - A company controlled by another company. See this Investopedia entry for more details.
Trade name - Also called business name, is a name used by companies that do not want to operate under their registered name. Hypothetical example, I register my company as “ETITTC LLC” but in my day to day business I use the trade name “Exposing the Invisible” and this is how my clients know me.
Wealth declaration - Document listing all the assets - including, money in banks, real estate, valuable art, company shares etc. - owned by a person. Wealth declarations are usually imposed in the case of public officials who must declare their income and other benefits from current and previous activities in order to ensure transparency and accountability.